Be an example of Christ-like love, “for the good of all”

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By Joe LaGuardia

You never know who is watching you and what kind of impact you may have on people.

I learned this the hard way when I was a rookie youth pastor in college.  I, ever the introvert, got to know the kids in my youth group, planned events, and taught Bible studies.

When I left church at the end of the day, however, I thought that my “job” as a youth pastor was over.  I’d go out to eat with my wife or catch a movie.  I was not cognizant of those around me, and I thought that no one was paying attention.

Every now and then I’d hear an adult at the church tell me that his or her child saw me out and about.  I was not doing anything immoral, but the children, whether I liked it or not, were watching me.  I had to start paying more attention and set an example.

The apostle Paul was always mindful of the influence he had on others.  As a rabbi, he was a professional mentor and teacher.  There was never a time he wasn’t teaching.  And he, like other rabbis at the time, were commissioned to be a public, moral witness for the entire community.

This ethic carried well into his conversion to Christianity.  In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul wrote that all Christians–preachers or not–must set an example for the rest of the world: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right…Whenever you have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:9, 10).

I recently read a letter that a gentleman wrote to his good friend’s wife before she passed away from cancer.  The gentleman, whom I will call Blake, wrote that Kelly (also not her real name) made a positive, lasting impact on her husband.  In fact, over the years, she had changed her husband for the better.

The letter encouraged Kelly.  It brought comfort.  It also affirmed Kelly’s hard work in helping her husband become a more compassionate, caring individual.

“You are a model for us all of the courage that comes from love and respect expressed in a godly way between two people,” Blake wrote.

“I am grateful for our friendship and for your [ability to] unlock real joy and real love from my friend’s heart.”

When Kelly’s husband, now my good friend, shared this letter with me, it became clear just how much Kelly influenced his faith and life.  She did not “grow weary,” but made it her mission to support him and others whom she knew and loved.

He told me, “Joe, Kelly never forced her values or beliefs on anyone.  She never imposed her opinions.  She only lived how she believed Christ wanted her to live.  She was my angel.”

That resonated deep with me.  You see, no matter how you live, where you live, or what you do for a living, you can choose to be either a positive or a negative influence on others.  Christians, especially, are called to be compassionate, meek, and kind.

We are all called to create a positive atmosphere in which others can grow and flourish.

Consider being an influence by practicing what Paul called the “fruits of the spirit,” found also in Galatians (5:22-23): “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

If we are eager to do “what is right” and to “work for the good of all” like Kelly did for her husband, then we too may make a lasting difference in people who need to unlock “real joy and real love” in their lives.

Learning how to care

Welcome_Hands_1Caring for others is a habit to be learned.

One of the hardest classes I took in seminary was not theology or philosophy.  It was not even Hebrew or Greek.  It was pastoral care.

The aim of pastoral care is to teach students how to listen, confront conflict, counsel and give referrals, and have empathy.  In short, the class is a crash-course in cultivating a “pastoral presence.”

You might assume that having a pastoral presence–the ability to reflect compassion and care in every situation–is something that God gives every pastor as a gift.  That assumption is wrong.  It is hard to learn empathy and compassion, and such lessons must be honed over time.

In fact, everyone needs to learn how to care for others.  It is not a trait that we perfect just because we are human.

A recent article in the Washington Post finds that caring for others, being compassionate, and having empathy are critical values and practices that adults must teach children and one another.

Unfortunately, teaching people how to care is not high on the priority list of things to do.  We take it for granted.

The article highlights Harvard psychologist, Richard Weissbourd, whose research shows that nearly 80% of youths said that their parents were more concerned about their achievements than about how they–the youths–cared for others.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” Weissbourd said.

Teaching people to care for others must be intentional and strategic.  It must also inspire sensitivity and curiosity about other cultures, faiths, and communities.

And if people have to learn how to care for others, then it stands to reason that churches need to learn the same.

Many years ago, Trinity had a meeting to discuss the direction of the church and its ministries.  In the middle of that meeting, a couple who had attended the church for less than a year spoke up:

“We have been here for some time now, but no one has invited us over for dinner or to an outing.  No one has taken the time to get to know us.”

The whole congregation was flabbergasted and left speechless.   It was embarrassing, but it challenged us to improve our care for each other.

The church made an intentional effort to learn how to welcome guests, build a community of care, and establish ministries that helped people connect with God, with one another, and with the larger community.

It was not easy.  We literally had to tell parishioners how to greet guests and what to say when they saw an unfamiliar face.

We also had to teach churchgoers that the chairs in the sanctuary were not theirs–they may be asked to sit in different places if a new family took up residency in their favorite spots.

Over time, the entire culture of Trinity changed.  I went from asking specific people to greet guests to simply watching people greet guests on their own initiative.

Effective follow-up also improved over time: when guests returned to church, people welcomed them back, not approached them as if it was their first time.

Caring for others had to be taught indeed.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which the individual and the individual’s needs often trumps the needs of others.  Our policies reflect it, our rhetoric perpetuates it, and our economics thrive on it.

Yet, when we bow before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose care for others set an example for how we are to live, practice community, and enlarge our compassionate embrace, we find that caring for others takes precedence over our own needs, wishes, and wants.

 

Generational faith formation makes a difference

coffee-and-bibleI once had an Old Testament professor who was reading through his grandmother’s Bible.  He had read through the Bible many times before, but this one was special because it had all of his grandmother’s hand-written notes and reflections throughout.

He cherished those notes and found that it helped him experience Jesus in a fresh, vibrant way.

Ever since then, I have been intentional about writing in my Bible, not only to keep track of sermon prep and Sunday School notes, but to make a sort of spiritual record to pass on to my children.

It was several years ago that I found out I was buying too many new Bibles to do this.

I, like so many others in our consumerist society, came under the misunderstanding that buying a new Bible would somehow get me to read it more.  I had to decide on one Bible–one made well, that could travel with me to both pulpit and prayer closet–and start the journey of writing, and to do so with my children and (eventual) grandchildren in mind.

I told this to a colleague who is an associate pastor in the city.  She, too, had a professor who stressed the importance of writing in one’s Bible–in fact, he allowed his students to bring notes for tests to class, as long as they were written in a Bible.  He felt that the notes would be accessible to students well after graduation, as well as build an heirloom of learning for future generations.

There is something about a Bible that is passed on to others that symbolizes the power of generational faith education.

Sociologist, Vern Bengston, writing for The Christian Century (“Families of Faith,” 25 December 2013), argued that a child’s religiosity, or lack thereof, is directly influenced by the faith of his or her parents, especially that of the father.  He also wrote that the faith of a child’s grandparents is just as influential, even if the parents are not religious at all.

Several weeks ago, I held a Bible study at a retirement home in Decatur.  We had a new participant in the class, so I made sure to get to know her a little bit.

She told me that she did not grow up in a Christian household.  She did, however, have a grandmother who was always reading or telling stories from the Bible.

Passing on the faith–sometimes in the form of passing down a Bible–is a significant way to teach the next generation the importance of Christian living.

The Bible explicitly commands that we, as God’s people, have an obligation to do this one way or another.

In Deuteronomy, Moses gave Israel instructions related to this command, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (6:4-7).

Teaching children faith–and the Bible–is so very important in our culture today.  A few weeks ago, the Barna group released statistics showing that Atlanta ranked 29 among the most “Bible-minded” states.  That means there are 28 states whose population knows the Bible better than we do.

Can you be counted among the “Bible-minded” in our state?  How do you get your children and grandchildren involved in engaging their faith and learning about the ways and Word of God?  Is it by telling the “old, old story;” or by having a Bible to leave with loved ones after you have gone to be in glory?  Whatever the case may be, God commands us to teach our faith, and we would do well to listen.