Sunday August 28, 2011 Proper
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Theme: Ruining our Children for the World.
One of my deep privileges at St. Michael’s over the past five years has been to be involved in the creation of educational or formational experiences for children, youth and adults alike. It has been and will continue to be an extremely demanding task especially amidst our cultural situation with so many choices and so much freedom for our youth generated by the advances in technology and the communication revolution along with the near failure of reliable social structures our youth require. The formation of children and youth is a ministry that I remain passionate about just as I am convinced of its essential importance in the life of any church. So I want to offer some thoughts on a theology of caring for the spiritual life of children and youth and in so doing I hope to illuminate the spiritual path for all us.
To begin it is worthwhile to consider what we want for our children. I want my children to be followers of Jesus. I want my children to have a defining story that I believe is truthful and leads to a transforming relationship with God in Christ. I want my children to have an openness to the mystery underlying all things, and an ability to live faithfully even in the midst of failure because forgiveness, mercy, redemption, and resurrection is integral to their story. I want them to grow up with a great deal of love, acceptance and security but I want that to be balanced with the awareness and realistic view of their own shortcomings, flaws, harmful tendencies, and destructive habits.
I hope that our children have active imaginations that are kindled by the biblical story. I want them to be able to reflect on the tension between the powerful reality of the Kingdom of God (the world as it should be) and how different it is from the world as it is. I want them to understand that they are participants in creating, reclaiming, offering that beautiful symbol of the Kingdom of God here and now, not just in some distant future. I want them to understand that their faith is not simply a private affair but has a decidedly public dimension. Faith is personal but never private.
There are of course many other things I want for my children:
I want them to have more character rather than more money.
I want them to understand that they are stewards of the many gifts that God has given them: intelligence, energy, skills, finances, the earth, their relationships, the faith community, creativity, their bodies, water, air, and of a truthful story.
But, if I had to sum it all up I would say something like this: I want their life in the church, its liturgies, their classes, their friendships with adults, their involvement in ministry, their participation in service, and their discussion and study with peers and thoughtful adults to ruin them for this world. By God’s grace I hope that my children will somehow in their own time realize that following Jesus is the path to joy even as it makes one very peculiar in the world. By God’s grace I hope that they learn that forgiveness is more important than always being right, that repentance is the way to growth, that compassion rather than greed leads to life, that cooperation is so much richer than endless competition, that looking out for and being with the other, the outcast, the oddball, and the marginal is really the more excellent way.
Now how do we as a community make this possible? The truth is that every community that wants to last beyond a single generation must concern itself with education. Education has to do with the way we maintenance our community throughout the generations. It is a way of assuring a continuity of vision, values and perception so that the community develops and sustains a self-identity. At the same time the way of doing this must ensure a certain flexibility or freedom so that the community can ReImagine itself in new circumstances and survive changes within the larger culture while still being relevant.
Nurture and incorporation of children into the believing community is a very complex and challenging task. Our experience with our own children tells us that there is not a single decisive experience or event that will suit all children. This work of nurture and incorporation of our own children requires an on-going conversation, whereby the child-en-route-to-adult begins, a little at a time, at one’s own pace, to affirm and claim the “story” the “good news” which defines and shapes the community.
The conversation I’m talking about having with our children and youth is never done. It goes on and on and thus requires the energy and creativity of a whole community across the generations. It goes on and on because the vitality of this conversation is what actually enlivens the whole community. It is the conversation itself that is important because it leads to conversion for those involved. In the act of listening deeply to our children and youth and of finding creative and engaging ways to offer them a vision of God’s ways, of the world as it should be; we are in fact making provision for our own conversion.
Children and youth are in fact one of the greatest gifts that God showers upon us. Our engagement in attending to their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord as the baptismal covenant instructs is in fact a key ingredient in our own spiritual vitality. In caring for the souls and minds and hearts of those most vulnerable and impressionable among us we find that we are converted, changed, enlivened and made whole in surprising ways.
So I want to make the bold assertion that this work of which I am speaking is the primary work of the faith community. This is one of the main reasons that the community of faith exists to shape the spiritual, intellectual, political, emotional, and relational lives of its youngest members.
The challenge of this ongoing conversation in faith is evident. It cannot be hurried or cut short as growth in faith has its own patient pace. To do it well requires the twin skills of advocacy and receptivity. What I mean by this is that at times our children will need to hear adult testimony, our own risk-taking to speak plainly and clearly about the faith of our heart and our experience in growing into the full-stature of Christ. At other times the conversation requires something far different -- a patient and accepting listening that in itself shapes a place where real inquiry, questioning and exploration of the world can be held in an accepting but covenantal way. There is the tacit understanding that this exploration of faith may or may not end up in membership or commitment to the people of God, it is a free choice and a work of grace that none of us can make happen.
All who have been engaged in the adventure of nurturing children and youth or grandchildren (or adult children or parents who still seem like children) know that it is remarkably difficult to strike a balance between these two essential postures of advocacy and receptivity. For some, advocacy becomes so important that our children experience it as heavy-handed and excessively authoritarian (this of course is what we fear in the militant evangelical example). On the other pole, for some, receptivity becomes all and our children experience us as passive, noncommittal, or cowardly (this of course is the characteristic of communities overly dependent on the “therapeutic model” or to “active listening”). Of course there is no “right way” to have this conversation and no matter how we handle the conversation with regard to advocacy or receptivity we will in most cases finish the conversation with some regret about our overall approach. By God’s grace our children may experience our advocacy and clear articulation of faith as inspiring and be grateful for our risk to share our own inner life and passions. For some children our deep listening and receptivity to their own exploration of the winding road of faith in God will be experienced as a healing openness and trust in God to meet them in their struggles and personal journey. The truth is that our children’s faith development is a mystery that develops both because of our loving efforts and in spite of us.
The context in which all of this must take place is an interesting one.
This ongoing conversation with our children and youth must take place in the soil of unconditional love – our children and youth need to know that we are quite literally crazy about them. That we really love them, are there for them and really can’t get enough of them. To be sure sometimes we are driven crazy by them but that too must also be saturated in love. Having adults who are not easily shocked but easily amused who will really listen to young people is a gift of great value to the youth who need a place to puzzle out their lives and God’s place within it.
Our children and youth also need a place where faith is clearly articulated in coherent way. Faith must have a intellectual dimension that is credible and is advanced by interpretive questions and the making of connections of little pieces to the larger context to which the faith community adheres. This of course requires that adults themselves struggle to develop and discern a coherent faith within their own defining community. We cannot impart that which we do not possess.
The final context in which this conversation needs to take place is one that is profoundly and intentionally counter-nurture which of course sounds very strange. The purpose of the conversation is not that our children would become good “Americans” or “Moral people” or “Productive professionals” all of which may or may not be desirable. The purpose of our conversation is that our young would be able to perceive, embrace and put into practice a way of life that is animated and informed by our peculiar memory and vision of faith held out in the gospel community. The point of our conversation is to ruin our children and hopefully ourselves for this world, that we might live out the gospel story in a lively and surprising way amidst the competing stories of violence, greed, destructive competition, dehumanization, accumulation, and unchecked consumption. To put it into the vernacular -- when one meets a Christian it would be refreshing to think of the old Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other.” In a strange and subversive way, the Christian story is meant to make each of us an oddity in the world, odd over against the secular self-indulgence while others go hungry, odd over against the complicit acceptance of violence as an acceptable way to make peace, odd over against the unyielding advance of market individualism.
There is no such thing as your private faith, your private Christianity. It is your living out of the faith, your articulation of what God has done, is doing and hopes to do in and through and with you that will animate and enliven the ongoing conversation with our children and youth. The maturation of my child in the love and knowledge of God does not just depend upon me, it depends upon the whole community. As a parent, I am dependent upon my faith community to model and give voice and example to the kind of faith that I desire for my children. I need, desire and hope for others who have the skills and sensitivities required for children’s growth to risk being in relationship not only with me, but my children. Without this kind of village or communal enterprise the success of my children growing up as people of a lively and transforming faith becomes more and more unlikely.
The truth is that the young in this community -- in every community -- are at risk. At risk of not knowing a truthful story that will shape them into the kind of faithful people that this world so desperately needs. They are at risk because learning this story is a radical act, a scandalous undertaking that cannot simply be passed on easily. It must be shared in creative and fresh ways in every generation and it takes the combined efforts and innovative approaches of a whole community to undertake such a venture as shaping the young in our midst into faithful men and women. There are, of course, no guarantees -- only the real possibility of fullness of life for those who engage the opportunity, struggle and joy.
In the end, caring for our children and youth -- daring to do the patient and lively work of sharing our transforming story of faith -- is the most important work we can do. It is the surest way to help us to struggle enough with our own faith that we might discover its “newness,” its “radicality” in such a way that not only will we find fullness of life, but we will have that fullness of life to offer our young. And in this way we will know what it means to lose your life in order to save it.
I wish to acknowledge my debt to Walter Brueggeman for his strong ideas about Christian formation ruining us for this world.