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.

Top newsmakers, personal and public, of 2010

Today I think it is appropriate to offer my best-of-religious-newsmakers of 2010.  We start with 10 and work our way down.

10.  This past summer, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship general assemblies revealed that we truly live in a post-denominational era.

In the midst of declining church attendance, both organizations formed task forces to determine their futures.   There is a crisis in organized religion; we hope this year brings some creative solutions to reverse the trend.

9.  We know that megachurch pastors are human too, but we don’t expect one to be accused of harassing young men.  I don’t care to comment on New Birth’s Bishop Eddy Long, but he made the news for 2010, so here he is at number 9.

8.  Although this does not deal with church, one of the more bizarre religious-related stories came out of Texas.  There, the state’s Board of Education revised history textbooks to blur the line between church and state.

Texas Law professor Cynthia Dunbar praised the new textbooks for casting America as “a Christian land governed by Christian principals.”  That it downplayed contributions by minorities and woman also showed distaste on the part of the Board.

7.  In a blog dated September 20, Baptist leader Al Mohler contended that yoga was incompatible with Christianity because of its Hindu, “occult” roots.   He mentioned that secular society wooed Christians into this practice, which borders on “ritualized sex.”

Mohler’s comments garnered hundreds of complaints.  It continues to be a popular conversation piece on the internet.

6.  On a more personal note, an article I wrote about my grandmother (in honor of her 90th birthday) was newsworthy.  It was, after all, popular among my readers.

I wrote about her love for me, mentioning: “She represents the absolute grace and abundant love that God has for all of us–almost like God incarnate–who loves like Christ loves.”  I got a lot of positive feedback on that little chestnut.

5.  Terry Jones: The pastor in Florida who invented “National Burn the Quran Day.”  It took a phone call from President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to convince him that God was telling him not to go through with it.  Need I say more?

4.  Just a few months after New Birth made the news, the Church in the Now dominated headlines when Bishop Jim Swilley announced his sexual orientation.

Reactions to Swilley’s announcement were mixed.  Yet, in a time of intense national debate surrounding homosexuality, Swilley’s coming-out had a certain grace and gravitas to it.  AJC columnist, Cynthia Tucker, called Swilley “courageous.”

It might have been courageous to some, but it left many people wondering why he took so long.  Churches that wrestle with this theological issue on a daily basis rarely make the news, but at least their honest from the get-go.

3.  ‘Tis was the summer of bullying.  After several teenagers died as a result of what seemed to be America’s greatest pastime, churches and governments alike rallied for zero tolerance.

Zero tolerance went viral when Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns made a public plea for people to stand up to bullying.   Many churches echoed Burns’ sentiments.  That was courageous.

2.  Another article I wrote:  After the fatal shootings at the local Gamestop and several local house parties, I wrote a confession of sorts.

I argued that we clergy fail our teenagers when we focus more on building our ministries than building healthy families.   Also, when churches fail to collaborate, we ignore the poverty and political conflicts that contribute to the rise of crime in our neck of the woods.

1.  Although some of these top-ten stories are juicy, nothing is more exciting than the “Blue Christmas” collection put on by First Baptist Church of Conyers.

They put out barrels everywhere, from Jim N’ Nick’s restaurant to Young American’s Christian School, and collected over 17,000 jeans for the poor.

So, with 2010 gone and the New Year upon us, congratulations to FBC of Conyers for having the most newsworthy story of 2010.  Let’s hope 2011 is filled with more good news like this one.

Grandparents are indispensable gifts from God

Some of my greatest childhood memories include the times when my parents allowed me to sleep over my grandmother’s house (the finished basement of my childhood home). Although it was only a few hours at a time for “Gram,” it helped shape my perspective on the important role of grandparents.

My Little Saint

Whenever I spent the night, Gram and I did a special evening ritual.    We feasted on rarities that I got only when I visited her: corn flakes in milk and a glass of seltzer water, both a big deal to a five-year old who got to stay up so late.

Instead of going to bed (like we were supposed to), we sat out on the stoop to catch lightening bugs.  Then it was ice cream and TV time with the likes of Archie Bunker and George Jefferson.

In hindsight, Gram’s gestures of kindness seem quaint, but her time with me instilled the belief that grandparents are God’s gifts of grace and mercy to all the children of the earth.

And, for me, Gram was most certainly God’s mercy in the flesh.  There was nothing I could do to anger her, and it seemed impossible to annoy her.  If I pitched a fit, she gave me chewing gum.  If I was unreasonable, she offered me a meatball.

She lived up to her name, Santina, which roughly translates into little saint. She embodied unconditional love when she offered her many hugs, kisses, and (if you caught her on a pension payday) pennies.

Don’t get me wrong, Gram had her scruples.  She taught me how to play poker.  She cursed often (usually at my uncle–her son–and at baffled game-show contestants).    She warred with her next-door neighbor.  She distrusted people not of Italian descent.

But in the eyes of a child, she was as perfect as the saints pictured in the little icons hanging from her bedroom mirror.  She was as colorful as the rosary beads on her nightstand.

I know that there are many people in this world who do not have the same experiences with grandparents as I; but in general, I find that grandparents give all of who they are to their loved ones.   These are God-in-the-flesh folks who spoil their grandchildren in season and out, and are stubborn about it too.

I had one such grandmother visit me in my church office the other day.  She is a parishioner, so when she was leaving I mentioned that I hoped to see her at worship.  Without missing a beat, she replied, “Yeah, maybe, but as a grandmother I’m always on call.”

Some pastors would scoff at this and give speeches about spending time with God on Sunday mornings.   I would much rather this grandmother spend time with her grandchildren than deny them such loving care during a time of need.

Why go to the church to hear about the Gospel when you can be the Gospel–God’s good news–to someone who is learning what good news is in the first place?

Recently Gram turned 90, and I had the privilege of celebrating her birthday with her while visiting New York.

She has dementia so her physical motor skills, memory, and speech are impaired.  Her hugs and kisses no longer come in abundance.  She does not say much, and her laughter is not as boisterous.  She still curses, but mostly at nurses instead of clueless game show contestants.

But even in her wheelchair, with her head tilted slightly askew, she represents the absolute grace and abundant love that God has for all of us–almost like God incarnate–and who loves like Christ loves.

As a pastor, many people ask me if I ever see or hear God.  My answer, though offered tongue-in-cheek, is always the same:  I have, and her name is Gram.