Monthly Archives: December 2012

Sunday School — Why Don’t You Go?

1934sundayschoolclassThis morning I went to a Sunday School class which has been ongoing for 64 years– and 3 of the original members were in attendance!  One of the staples of  Church practices since the 1700’s is Sunday School.  They are a relatively recent phenomenon.  Some of the early Sunday Schools arose in England, with the efforts of William Fox and Robert Raikes.  Sunday was the one day that children were not working in factories, and so they tended to get quite rowdy on those days.   Sunday Schools were designed to focus these young minds on religious instruction instead of on secular things and tomfoolery.   Maybe the same is true of you– maybe you need some Sunday School.

First Baptist Church, where Celeste and I attend here in our neighborhood on Sundays, has 4 adult Sunday school classes, despite having little more than 100 members in attendance at the morning service most weeks.  This morning I went to one of the classes– “home-builders”.  One of my older couple friends were there, and I asked them how long the class had been running.  “64 years” they said, adding that that was how long they had been married! 

In an age when churches change up their groups and classes on a quarterly basis, and reorganize and change the names of groups more often than one can keep track of (core groups, home groups, signal groups, cell groups, home communities, etc), this class has been faithfully going for 64 years.  One of the long-standing class members was Jack, who was the voice of the College World Series for over 20 years.  89 years old, he opened the class this morning with announcements and prayer.  Then there was a motion that the class give $25 to the music director in appreciation for his playing the piano for them at their openning quite often.  It was a democratic vote, but madam President gave a brief scowl as she asked, “are there any nays?” and everyone laughed. 

One of the women members of the class talked today on John 1, and Jesus as the light of the world.  She did a fine job, and there was some nice discussion and personal stories shared.  What was evident was that this was a group who knows each other, and they together care about living out their faith.  The responsibility for teaching gets passed around, and each person has a turn.  They have a book that they use as a guide to study. 

When I grew up in church, there were always at least three different classes (again, at a church with little over 100 people).  My father recounts how that, when he was just married and the new young Christian Education chairman for the church, decided to switch up the sunday school program.  There had always been a ‘traditional’ sunday school class (where they often spoke in Swedish) and a ‘young people’s’ sunday school class.  But as my father stepped into his new role, there were a number of 65+ single women and men in the ‘young people’ class, and so he thought perhaps it was time for a change.  But some of these people had been in their class for 40 years, and weren’t too keen on the change, but it ended up working out fine (although it didn’t make my dad very popular at the beginning). 

Sometimes change is good, and things need to morph and develop over time.  But sometimes we seek novelty because we are no good at sticking with things.  These faithful Sunday-School goers at First Baptist, who have been going to the same class for 64 years were an inspiration to me for their faithfulness and I plan to join them regularly from here on out.  Not because they have a rock-start teacher, but because they are a group of authentic believers seeking God together in a simple and faithful way.  What I really enjoyed was the community of believers there interacting with each other around some common questions raised by the teacher.   And I am convinced that that sort of faithfulness results in more real spiritual results than the most ingenious and sexiest of strategies.   

Sunday School is sometimes taught by hired leaders, which is fine and often quite good.  But one of the benefits of Sunday School in my mind is that lay-people (non-professional staff) have opportunity to be challenged to develop their God-given gifts.  In churches where all the work of teaching is done by paid staff, the lay person has less opportunity to be challenged to take responsibility personally for strengthening the church.  In the church where I was raised, few if any of the Sunday school teachers had formal training, but they all knew their Bible well and were challenged to know it well because they were expected to help share the burden of teaching their peers. 

And Sunday School is not just for Protestants.  I have found many sites giving advice for putting on Catholic Sunday school (although the focus is usually on children, not adults– whereas Adult sunday school has been a mainstay tradition in Protestantism for well over 200 years).  

Many times people don’t go to Sunday School, and just attend the main service.  The problem with that is that you don’t really get to be part of the body in the same way.  There is something more intimate about Sunday School classes, and there is somehow more ownership when you join them– its a step up in commitment on your part, and that is both encouraging to the church you are in, and also good for you spiritually.  The reasons people don’t go to Sunday School are usually pretty weak– I know this from personal experience!  I would encourage you, if you have the opportunity– go to Sunday School– not only because you might learn something, but because it will likely be an encouragement to those who have been faithfully going for years before us.  Its a fairly simple way to be an encouragement to fellow Christians. 

May God have mercy on us all. 

Andy

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“Loving the Orphan, the Widow, the Stranger… but not my brother”: On (naturally) taking those near us for granted

hypocritesI find that I’m often quite gracious with strangers, but find myself quickly annoyed at times when someone close to me expects grace from me– particularly Christians.  It is heroic to make sacrifices for strangers who don’t deserve it.  When you do outwardly impressive acts of selflessness towards those outside your circle of family and close friends, there is a degree of public acclaim to be had.  And its a lot easier to do a random one-off act of kindness, with no strings or future expectations attached.  But sometimes when we are wronged by someone close, when grace is asked of us by someone we depend on closely, we can feel especially annoyed and frustrated with them. 

Being human, and having a tendency to see our point of view and interests above those of others, we put those close to us in a double-bind which makes it our tendency to act with love towards them even less than those we are distant from sometimes.  On the one hand, we expect them to put up with more of our shortcomings.  On the other hand, we expect them to give more to us than an acquaintance or stranger.  So: we expect to get more, and give less in these relationships sometimes.  Of course this is unfair.  Of course this unjust.  But of course the grace which overlooks this injustice is exactly the sort of love we sometimes expect of those we are closest to. 

It is interesting to me that tennants who I am more generous towards sometimes tend to be the ones who then end up being most likely to take that for granted, and to ask for even more exceptions and concessions.  This is why it can be risky (some would say unwise) to make exceptions or provide special grace to tennants.  And of course, some people will use however much rope you give them to just get more tangled up in their tangled noose and still come out hanging themselves.  But it is just as dangerous, if not more so, to give special grace to those close to us.  As the saying goes, ‘never lend money to friends or family’.

We see this in our churches as well, when it comes to helping the needy.  Churches get quite excited about sending help and aid to Haiti, Africa, or wherever else far away they can find a need.  But it gets more dicey when you have an actual needy person come to your church, and potentially need ongoing help, and a ride, and your time, and  a real commitment of yourself beyond a monthly or semi-annual financial contribution.  That kind of grace is more costly to us, because it is so close, and commits us to a real ongoing responsibility and commitment to someone who may (probably) take you for granted.

But I have been thinking lately that Jesus certainly has called us to a dangerous life of living especially for the sake of those who are most likely to take you for granted.  We humans are a needy bunch, and a stingy bunch.  We need grace and mercy on a regular basis.  I need mercy and grace constantly.  And then I usually turn around and note with severity how I have been shorted and wronged by the very people I expect to bear my own shortcomings.  I wish I would expect the best of those closest to me, and do my best for them.  But instead I expect a lot from them, while doing less for them than I would someone I am not close to, precisely because I think they should be more able to absorb my deficiencies than the stranger or acquaintance. 

Good fences make good neighbors– because we need boundaries.  There is no doubt we do.  And growing up in rural Nebraska, I know full well that there is a tendency to not get too close to your neighbors, in part because you have to live down the road from them for most of your life, more likely than not.  The same can happen with family and friends– where we avoid potentially vulnerable or difficult issues, and so avoid deep relationship– in part because of our fear of somehow screwing up the relationship– because these are people we are ‘stuck with’ for life! 🙂

So the challenge then, of being a faithful Christian– someone who is full of faith, expects the best, hopes all things, believes all things (despite being let down)– is not just to do this heroically for those we are not especially close to.  That has its own reward.  The challenge instead, is to do this on a day-in-day-out basis with those who we are closest to– to allow ourselves to be taken for granted at times, overlooked at times, to love unconditionally those with whom we know yet more and more will be expected and accepted from them.   Of course sometimes this will come quite naturally, because these are, after all, our dear friends and family that we do love.  But in the moments when those charms of family and friends are lost on us, we need to remember that this is our calling– this is what God has us here for– to be the ones who make up the difference, fill in the gap, and provide the mercy and grace that we needy humans need from each other.  If we don’t provide this to our family and friends, we may have outward heroic appearances, but in the reality of our hearts which few can see, we will know that we are stingy bean counters, keeping account of wrongs and deficiencies with those who most need love and hope from us. 

But we also need to stay alert to our own tendency to take others for granted.  During this season of Thanksgiving and Advent, as we approach the celebration of the birth of Christ, its a good time to reflect on the ways we are blessed, and to make sure that those who bless us know that they are a blessing!

I need mercy.  And I need grace to provide that mercy to those in my tight circle even more than to do one-time acts of random grace to strangers and walk-bys. 

May God have mercy on us all.

Atheism or Advent?

Atheism is always a temptation.  There is a certain relief that can come from finally giving up hope that what is expected simply isn’t, and won’t come.  Particularly if you find yourself in the company of people who you don’t necessarily relate to on many levels.  Atheism is at its core a desire for peace– peace from the ongoing effort to have faith in the face of challenges and struggle.

This seems clear from the fact that many people become atheists because they can’t square or reconcile the fact that God exists with all the apparently meaningless and painful things that seem to happen to them, or in the world in general.  At some point it begins to make more sense to simply let go of the premise that God exists, because then the apparent randomness and apparent failure surrounding them seems to be more natural.  Atheism is, in a most generous interpetation, a way to get God ‘off the hook’ for all the bad things that happen in the world.  If God doesn’t exist, then its no wonder all this stuff happens…

The hope of Advent flies in the face of this atheistic rational tendency.  It is the time of hope in the Christian calendar which remembers a hope that Jews had for many centuries that a messiah would come to bring salvation to humanity.  And Christian Advent remembers this hope of expectation with a full knowledge that even after the fact of the messiah’s coming, it seems in some ways to be absolutely incredible– that one man/God, come in the form of a child, could provide a means of peace with God through his death.  All of this strikes normal people, at some level, as incredible.  If it is true, it is surely a very strange way for salvation to come to all of humanity.

And so the way of faith– of believing in this very strange means of bringing us close to God– is not so simple as a baby in a manger with sheep and straw.  And to go past this bizzareness as though it is everyday normality is to ignore the fantastic craziness which is at the root of our faith.

But the strangeness and grace of the world we live in is often lost on us.  It is easy to ask why this one abberation (pain, loss, harm, hurt) happened to us this one time, and to never ask why in the world normally we continue to live and breathe, enjoy and prosper in this strange amazing existence in the world.  When we get cancer we ask, “why did this happen” while we had lived for 25 years prior without cancer never asking “why don’t I have cancer?”.  We expect the good, and are surprised by anything other, and our anger is quickly turned towards the giver of all good things, despite our general lack of thankfulness for the good we get.  We are surrounded by daily amazing miracles which we begin to accept as normal and commonplace, thereby becoming unaware of the miraculous fact of our existing at all.  Our hearts become dull and our eyes blind to the miraculous which envelopes our lives.

In the same way, our sin and the need for reconciliation is severe and important– although it, too, can become so commonplace that we do not notice its radical importance.  We lose our edge, our sense of brokeness and unnaturalness, as we become used to the unusual, accustomed to the dull deadness of our sin and hopelessness.  We expect the broken, instead of the ideal.  We mock perfection, as our lives themselves seem to be a mockery of the pure and good.

Most of us humans live our day to day lives in a haze of random muddle, struggling to get through to the next, doing the best we can sometimes, and other times aiming low.  To have the hope of the infinite power of God invested in our lives through a free means of grace often seems so counter to the reality we live in that it seems fanciful– farcical even.

But advent calls us to this hope.  To this fantastic incredible love of God which has come to us in the birth of Jesus Christ, somehow.  Christians are called at this time of year to remember that we are called to the hope of a messiah, and the transformative power of Christ to bring this world back into full fellowship with Creator God.  We are looking to the second coming of Christ– the Parousia– and we are called to participate in the regenerative restoration of the kingdom of God on earth– not through politics or propoganda, but through our living out our hope with abandon in the face of the apparent hopelessness which we encounter daily.

It is hard to be a Christian– to live our our Christian hope– somedays.  But it is also an exciting challenge and our worldview is indeed radically different than the view of the atheist who often sees life through the lens of threat and burden, not through the eyes of grace and gift.

May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear– with hope.  May God have mercy on us all.