After the Storm: Investing in Family

The Saints who participate in The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending some time in June and July contemplating what it means for us to go on to what’s next – after the storm of the Coronavirus dissipates.  In so doing, we’ll look at some key decisions regarding our faith, family, finances, and fellowship – and how we can choose to engage in those areas differently than we did prior to the interruption that the virus imposed.  On June 27, we celebrated the baptisms of two amazing children and thought about the ways that faith is passed along to subsequent generations.  In doing so, we considered the voice of the prophet in Jeremiah 29 as well as Paul’s note to his younger friend Timothy in II Timothy 1:3-7. 

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How have the events of the past sixteen months, particularly the global pandemic, affected your faith practices?  And to be even more specific, how have these events impacted your family life, and your hopes for other people in your family?

As we continue this month to look at folks in scripture who are caught up in storms of one kind or another and who then decided to move forward through those trials, this morning I’d like for us to consider what it might mean to think of our families as incubators of faith or arenas for discipleship.

My experience of the pandemic has shown that in some families, there has been great anxiety over the cancellation of Sunday School, or the lack of confirmation class, or our inability to gather for worship in-person.  In others, though, there is great relief; I’ve been told, “You know what, Pastor Dave? It feels wonderful. I don’t have to pretend or impress anyone – it’s like everyone is off my back…”

I’m here to tell you that of all the things I miss about our lives before the pandemic, I think that being present with children has to be near the top of the list.  I say that this morning not primarily as a grandfather, but as a pastor.  I say that because we must acknowledge that the transmission of our faith is transgenerational.

The foundation of Israel’s faith is laid out in the shema in Deuteronomy, where the essentials of identity are established and then followed with the words, “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 6)

We see the same emphasis in the early church, where we read account after account of an individual coming to faith, and then the “entire household” is baptized.  That is to say that parents and children began and engaged in the journey of faith together.

Indeed, a part of God’s intention seems to be that faith is passed down from one generation to the next.  In our reading from Jeremiah, for instance, the prophet is reacting to the dismay and horror that the people have expressed after they were swept into exile in Babylon.  They knew that they were called to act in faith and to call their children and grandchildren into faith – but how could they possibly do those things when they were forced to live in such a strange and hostile place?

We might expect the old prophet to tell the children of Israel to circle the wagons and shut the doors; to do whatever they could to hide out or hold on to what they could in the hopes of enduring that which was to come.  But that’s not what Jeremiah does.  Instead, he invites them to continue to be themselves in new ways, and in so doing to teach their children and their grandchildren the unchanging truths of God in a new place.  They are called both to hold onto the fundamentals of the faith but to engage in the community around them.  The new environment does not alleviate the need to pass their faith to the next generations.

Similarly, Paul, who is writing to his young protégé Timothy from the death row of a Roman prison, recalls their last meeting, at which Timothy wept at the prospect of the old Apostle’s death.  Paul hints at the fact that there may be doubts, or fear, or pain in the young man’s life.

Paul, Timothy, and their contemporaries were in fact facing the same dilemma as the Jews of Jeremiah’s time: how can our faith possibly survive this storm? As the first generation of Christians – those who actually knew Jesus – begins to die off, what will happen?  How can the faith survive?

Paul, like Jeremiah, points to the fact that if what we believe has any truth, then it is greater than any one of us (including himself!).  If what we proclaim is true, then it is true for the generations that will follow ours, and ought to be handed down.

In doing this, Paul points out the glaringly obvious truth that nobody gets here without a grandmother.[1] Paul reminds Timothy of his grandma Lois and his mother Eunice.  What lives in Timothy, Paul says, was present in these previous generations.

Whether you’re enduring the pain of separation in a Babylonian exile, or struggling under the persecution of the Roman Empire, or just trying to figure out life in Pittsburgh in 2021, there is no better way to keep faith vital than by being an effective parent.  As we live and move with our children, may we do so with integrity.  May our lives point toward the truth.  It may seem self-evident, but the best way to ensure the intergenerational transmission of the faith is by seeking to invest in and help form the faith identity of your children.  We do this by engaging them in practices, and teaching them what faith looks like, how love acts, and where hope lives.

Yet there’s more to this than mere biology.  Jeremiah assumes a vibrant communal life.  He talks about preparing the children for marriage and relationships in that new place, and about seeking the welfare of this city in which they’d rather not be stuck.  Yes, Paul reminds Timothy of his mother and grandmother, but he does so in a letter that begins by addressing Timothy as teknon – a word that means “my dear child”.  Paul reminds Timothy that even though they do not share any DNA, they have a connection that is based on a relationship of intimacy and trust. Both of our readings today point to the fact that the transmission of faith across generational boundaries is not simply a genetic proposition.

For any community of faith to thrive – including this congregation – we must create scenarios wherein our children have access to healthy relationships with other adults.  Research has indicated that our children are most likely to grow up with a healthy sense of self, a mature faith, and a confident understanding of their place in the world when they have the benefit of five competent and caring adults in their lives.[2]  Obviously, we need more than just parents!

And yet, according to a 2016 survey, only 28% of students in grades 6-12 indicated that they had four or five strong relationships. An astonishing (and depressing) 22% of young people surveyed indicated that they did not feel as though they had even a single vibrant relationship with an adult on which to lean.  More than 1/5 of students said that they felt alone in the world.[3]

So hear me, church: one aspect of good parenting is connecting with and supporting your child’s development as much as you possibly can.  Another, equally important, aspect is realizing that you cannot do it alone, and making sure that you are putting your child in situations where healthy relationships can thrive – places like Youth Group, or Sunday School, or mentoring, or even some form of spiritual direction or counseling for more mature young people.  Healthy faith presumes a vibrant community of care.

So what I’m saying is that the faith we share is meant to be conveyed across the generations, and further, that such transmission involves not only parents and children, but a broader set of deep connections.  One thing I would add to that is the clear recognition that any faith that is genuine is a faith that is fully owned by the self.  God has billions of children, but not a single grandchild.  Our task is to equip the children that we know and love to connect with the Lord intimately and deeply on their own.

Here’s what I mean by that.  This is a blanket that was hand-made by Margaret Vanstone Walter, who was born in 1815 in West Putford, England, and who happens to be my wife’s great-great-great grandmother.  We are taking it to Ohio, where it will belong to Ariel and ultimately our granddaughters.  Now, just for a moment, think: if you were given a blanket of this quality made by your great-great-great-great-great grandmother, how would you treat it?  Would you use it on the sofa in the basement?  In the dog’s crate? Would you use it as a tablecloth on spaghetti night?  No!  You’d protect it.  You’d treat it gingerly.  It’s an heirloom, after all.

This, on the other hand, is a toolbox that my father gave to me.  His father made it, in part, out of wood reclaimed from old ammunition boxes.  It’s still got some posterboard in it from what I believe is the mid 1930’s.  I’ve used it in many different ways over the years, but for the past couple of decades it has held my portable drill.

Note the wood in Grandpa’s tool box – reclaimed from a box made by the “Western Cartridge Company”

So here we have two items that are, between them, hundreds of years old.  One – the blanket – has sat on a shelf, and been honored or displayed, but rarely used.  The other – the toolbox – is lugged all over the country on mission trips and fix-it jobs.  Further, the tool box is currently holding some tools that my grandfather could not have imagined when he built it.  A laser level? In 1935? Grandpa wouldn’t believe me.

“Teach Them to Pray” by Ted Ellis.
Used by Permission of the Artist. More at http://www.tellisfineart.com

Here’s my point: I am suggesting that the faith that we are attempting to pass on to our children is not a delicate and fragile heirloom that we carefully preserve and hope to God they don’t ruin.  Rather, a vibrant faith is like a toolbox that yes, has a story and comes from somewhere and someone who is important, but is useful for facing the challenges of this particular place and time. If that’s true, then it is OK – and even expected – that a living, growing, vibrant faith may lead me to different places, perspectives, and viewpoints than my parents’ faith took them.

I think that is what Paul means when he suggests that Timothy ought to “rekindle” his faith.  Faith, if it’s alive, needs to be stirred up and poked and rearranged from time to time.  We can’t leave it sit on the shelf!

Listen: all four of my grandparents claimed and practiced faith in Jesus Christ.  They did their best.  That said, however, to varying degrees they held views on people of other ethnicities, faiths, or sexual identities that I find to be disappointing at least and perhaps even outright offensive.

Having said that, however, I have no doubt that if I were able to travel back in time to, say, 1932, and sit with them and explain to them some of the places that my faith journey has led me regarding racial reconciliation, understandings of human sexuality, or a host of other social and personal issues, that they might be appalled, embarrassed by, and praying for me.  They were never where I am.  I have not been where they were.

More than that, my faith is not in them.  My faith is not even in faith.  My faith, and all of who I am on my best days, is in Jesus of Nazareth, and in what the God of creation was and is doing in Jesus.  My faith relies on the things that Jesus said about welcome, forgiveness, truth, inclusion, and love being the foundations of the universe.

My grandparents had faith in Jesus, just like me.  But because I’m standing in a different place, I see the same Jesus a little differently than they did.  That’s ok.  In fact, it would be wrong for anyone to insist that our perspectives can never change.

I have a friend who was a faithful, devoted participant in the Presbyterian church close to her home.  I asked her if she was a member, and she immediately said, “Oh, no.  No, I couldn’t.”  She went on to explain that as far back as she knew, everyone in her family had been Catholic, and if she were to formally join a Protestant church, there would be a commotion at the cemetery because of all those relatives spinning in their graves.

Our task as parents and as a community of faith is deep: we are called help establish identity and a sense of self in the children that God has given us to love.  We are expected to give them a legacy and a heritage that is rich and deep and, well, faithful.  That’s what we are to give to them.

We are further called to expect our children to grow to new places.  We must remember that God is not finished, and that our own understanding is not complete. God does not need us to somehow “protect” the Gospel or “defend” the truth.  We, as the church of Jesus Christ in Pittsburgh in 2021, are not called to be the gatekeepers for the Gospel, wherein we decide who is in and who is out; where we protect our sacred traditions and favorite hymns and ideas about the way the world should be.  Instead, we are called to nurture faith and trust and hope and love in the generation that follows ours, and then to open those gates and send those young people to live with fullness and joy in the world that God has given to them, and relying on God’s care for them and their own faith in God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] I have copied this delightful phrase word for word from Thomas C. Oden’s Interpretation Commentary  on First and Second Timothy and Titus (Louisville: John Knox 1989) p. 29.

[2] See, for instance, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_every_student_needs_caring_adults_in_their_life  and https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/01/06/why-kids-need-strong-network-supportive-adults-how-build-that-tribe/

[3] https://www.search-institute.org/developmental-relationships/learning-developmental-relationships/

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