Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
Is there anything other than national security and health care that we care about more than schooling? Especially in this age where school work has become so related to career prospects. I doubt that the vast majority of young go to college to become literate, cultured, well rounded human beings. They clearly do see college as the door to a career that will hopefully enable them to replicate their growing up life style.
But where does this leave the community of faith, which is by definition a place of growth and learning. If it is clear that the secular schools are absolutely essential to a successful future for our young, where does that leave the learning of faith which is not so transparently important to their future. Our children and young people may readily assume on the basis of their daily experience that religion cannot be all that critical. It is never encountered amidst all the report card courses that clearly have priority. Not to mention the priority given to sports, theater, music, and the hoard of other activities that generate a resume.
There are religious groups who try to gain entry into the modern culture by restoring the old anxiety about death and hell fire. But, for few is that a daily driving fear. And yet some of us, in our more reflective moments, know that things like faith, hope, love, moral values, a strong family life are important. The problem seems to be not a rejection of these, but how to sustain a real sense of their importance in the secular world that doesn’t think much of them.
Here, I think, is where the children come in. Strange, no matter how distant from community of faith and worship we became in that pulling away period of high school and young adulthood, when that first kid comes along, we begin to think about their religious education. We begin checking out the local church schools. The instinct is right and proper. Even if healthy and self-assured, we have managed to get along without an intense faith of our own, we sense that it is somehow important that our children are exposed to it.
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Ancient faith and modern social research unite in insisting that if we want to live a vital, purposeful, hopeful, life with others, we need a faith. For most of us over the long haul a living faith is far more critical than math tables or geography. Because faith is first of all an understanding of reality which enables a hearty trust and hope in the midst of life’s twists and bumps. No matter how unreflective we are about it, most of us have internalized such an understanding, such a perspective, and know that without it, we are in trouble.
But the children push us, do they not. They seek, as best they can, some order in their universe. Is there some authority even greater than father and mother? Are their moral boundaries that we can trust? Who made this astounding world? Nothing does more to give tiny boys and girls a sense of security and purpose than a sense of divine love and justice. It is no simply task to help them with this, but they are certainly ready enough to believe.
The rather well known, at least in some circles, Russell Kirk tells of lively dialogues with their eldest daughter, Monica, age 3 going on 4. “I love you, Mama,” Monica said the other day, ” except when God tells you to punish me.” “Monica, God doesn’t tell me to punish you,” Annette (my spouse) replied. “Oh, The devil tells you then?” Monica finds it easy enough to understand the devil: her usual apology for misbehavior is that a devil got into her. From what source she obtained that information, we’re not sure – not from us.
Why does the Apostle Paul write to his dear son, reminding him to fan into flame his faith? Because that faith in Jesus and his way is for the both of them the very core of life. “His promise of life in Christ Jesus.” Does the way we go about ordering our days in family and community reflect the importance of this priority?
So there is something more profound at stake here than just seeing that our children get a good Christian Education. Something that involves all of us in the growth and maintenance of our faith. Right from the outset the old story makes clear that faith is not a private and personal matter. Moses stands before the community and says, “Let the words stay in your heart, and tell them to your children, and keep on telling them.”
The reality of faith depends upon life in community where faith is nurtured and confirmed. Faith is not something I can sustain off in a corner by myself. Faith is not so much taught as it is a reality that is caught from others of faith. Faith is about a community of love and justice and hope that God seeks through Moses and Jesus to build in this world. It is, above all, that possibility that we believe in. And we can only truly sustain it in ourselves as we live it with one another in such a community. Paul writes to Timothy of “the faith that dwelled in grandmother Lois, and in mother Eunice, and which I am sure therefore also dwells in you.” His faith is not something Timothy invented or learned in splendid isolation from others of faith.
Want to learn faith, deepen faith? Share it. Sharing, however tentatively with one another, our doubts and struggles, our hopes and confidence, we grow together stronger in faith. In his letter to Rome, Paul tells the Christians in that pagan city to confess with their mouths and believe in their hearts the Good News of God’s love. I think the order is significant. If you want to believe something, get with those also struggling to believe and talk.
Now I know we are not going to run out of here this morning and turn into street corner evangelists. Although there was one of those fellows in Manhattan a few years ago, with a megaphone, calling on the hordes in Gotham city to repent and get right with their God. A kindly and more proper Christian went up to him and said, “Why do you do it? You know you are not going to reach any of this secular sophisticated bunch.” The fellow gave him a long dark look and said, “I’m not doing it for them. I’m doing it because I don’t want to become like them.” It has often occurred to me that I preach many weeks to the one person I know needs it most.
However haltingly and jargon free, we share with one another our doubts and convictions, our fears and our faith, we find ourselves increasingly convinced of their reality, simply by the feedback that we provide for one another. And nowhere is that more true that of our children. There is no real community of faith that does not care about its transmission to the next generation.
Ever stop and think that the most important mission of the church is the passing of the faith to the next generation? The main line denominations, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, UCC’s are rapidly declining in membership. So every two or three years they crank up a new member evangelism project to get out there and bring them in. A few years ago, someone thought to study why the decline. Who were those leaving? The answer: their young.Ever stop and think that the most important mission of your life is the communication of a healthy, intelligent, hopeful, loving faith to your children and grandchildren. What greater gift to the world?
A huge part of the Federal Budget is spent on the pathology produced by families who do not do this job. The family and church, which is nothing more than families gathered together, these remain the most effective department of health, education, and welfare. And the seedbed of life-giving faith.
And how do we do it. We do it first of all by the kind of life we live before our children and young people. They watch how we spend our time and what priority worship and community and service plays in our lives. If these don’t seem to play any urgent role in our schedule, they will draw the inevitable conclusion. It is not that important. They watch how we spend our time and whether it includes them.
But along with lives that include a place for faithful service, it is equally important that they do hear from us, about our fears and our faith, about our deepest convictions and profound feelings about life. Reality is they hear from us most often when they get on our nerves or do something foolish. And what do they hear? Appropriately they hear commands and correction, anger and disappointment. But when do they hear a word about how we are inside, what we hold most dear, whom we trust. These are powerful words that they want and need. What do Mom and Dad think about right and wrong, aside from the should’s and ought’s they rain down on me when I mess up. How do they feel about hope and faith? How do they understand life? My Dad spoke very little about such things. But I still remember when he did. And the words left their mark on me.
And it is Dad, real or surrogate as Paul was for Timothy. I am probably in trouble with my title. Fathering the Future. What about mother? Of course, mother. But I don’t worry so much about her except as the modern liberation of women has left her often trying to do it all, left father right where he is ever inclined to be, leaving religion to Mom.
Certainly in the days of Moses and Jesus, patriarchy reigned.
With some interesting exceptions and interruptions, however, in comparison to the pagan cultures around. But there may also be a certain profound reading of human nature in the scene before the mountain. Moses tells the fathers, the men of the community, to tell them to your children and grandchildren. Because father needs to hear this.
Wouldn’t you know it? Modern research suggests the wisdom in this ancient scene. In 1994 the Swiss carried out a survey. The goal was to determine whether a person’s religion carried through to the next generation, and if so, why. If not, why not. The result is quite surprising. There is one critical Factor. It is overwhelming, and it is this: It is the religious practice of the father of the family, that, above all, determines the future participation in or absence from the religious community of the children.
The picture is quite clear. If both father and mother attend regularly, seventy-four percent of their children will end up as churchgoers. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all. In short, if a father does not participate in the faith community, no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions, only one child in 50 will become a regular participant. Maybe Moses knew what he was doing when he lined up the men for his lecture.
Now you know why I am so grateful and overjoyed at the participation of fathers as well as mothers, and grandparents and young people here at Kenilworth Union, as they talk to the children.
What a blessing to our children. What a gift to the future of our community and country. We read a lot about children at risk. But all the data suggests that where they are most at risk is in loss of firm values, sense of meaning for their lives, confidence that they are loved, real hope for their futures. Where else than from families together in community as here, do they receive these precious gifts.
And in this community of faith, they are all our children. It is interesting that along with reference to Timothy’s mother and grandmother, there is not a word about father and grandfather. It is entirely possible they were not there for Timothy. But Paul is. To Timothy, dear son of mine, grace, mercy and peace from God. That is why I am reminding you again to fan into a flame the gift of faith that you possess through the laying on of my hands.
I remember hearing a woman aflame with the gift of faith. Her name was Georgia Harkness. In a time when it took great courage, she made her way into the academic world of religious thought, taught at the Pacific School of Religion, Garrett Seminary in nearby Evanston, International Christian University at Mitaka, Japan, Union Theological Seminary in Manila, Mount Holyoke College. She authored over thirty books and countless articles. Her influence was vast and world wide. Her honorary degrees countless.
I have told you before of her father, country farmer, to whom she attributes her faith. She wrote of him, “Had the opportunities of today, or even a wider environment in his own time, been open to my father he would have gone far. As it was, his influence went deep. As a young man he made a considerable break from his local surroundings to attend Oswego Normal School, now State University College, and he hoped to teach. Just as he graduated, his father died, and as the only son he felt that he must stay home to care for his mother and sisters. An entry in his diary when he was twenty-two tells his life story in embryo: “I am sitting at the old table near the old stove, in the old room where I have sat so many, many times, and the old home seems dear to me tonight. Here I was born. Here I have grown to be a man, and here one year ago today my father died, and here I should love to live and die if I thought that I could here be as useful to God, the world, and to my fellowmen, as anywhere else.
When he died in the same old home at the age of eighty-eight, beloved by all the countryside, whatever might be said of his influence in the world, none could doubt his usefulness to God and his fellowmen. In our home we did not talk much about religion. There was a Scotch-Irish taciturnity in our background which made us hesitate to say much about what lay deepest in us. Yet we attended church as regularly as Sunday came around. Except when my father was away at school, he taught a Sunday school class from the age of Sixteen to eighty-four. I wonder who else has taught his neighbors for sixty-eight years in the same community. Said Paul, “You may have ten thousand tutors in Christ, but you have only one father.” True enough, but when a father in a home is at the same time one’s foremost guide in faith, how great the blessing.”
Fathers, mothers, grandparents, teachers, friends, perhaps our greatest service to God, the world and our fellow human beings will be in the faith we share with those who come after, who are our future and final company in our eternal home.
Copyright 2003, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.