Teach Your Children Well (6/13/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
This is my final week in the pulpit for a while. Early this week I will pack up and head to Chicago, where I will have my final extended residency in my doctoral program at Chicago Theological Seminary. Dr. Meyers will stand in this privileged place for the next four weeks, so I know you are in the best of hands.
I’m a big believer in education. Our world is changing so quickly, there is hardly a profession that does not require the almost continuous updating of one’s skills. This morning I will cover two areas—one briefly, and one in some detail. Briefly, I will answer some of the questions many of you have asked about my Doctor of Ministry program; and then, in some detail, I will talk about one of the most important issues we face as a church: the Christian education of our children.
I’ll say a few words about the doctoral program. First, there is more than one type of doctorate. Many people think there are two kinds—the kind that allows you to practice medicine, and a Ph.D. That’s not quite the way it works. Broadly speaking, there are two types of doctorates—terminal academic doctorates, and professional doctorates. A terminal academic doctorate is called a Ph.D., and normally deals with theory. It means one has become an expert’s expert in a particular field. Professional doctorates, on the other hand, go by many names, such as M.D., D.Min., D.Ed., and J.D.; meaning Medical Doctor, Doctor of Ministry, Doctor of Education, and Juris Doctorate. These professional doctorates are not as academic and theoretical as they are hands-on.
I’ll give you a few examples to show the difference. If you were in med school, and your goal was to do research and eventually become a professor at med school, you would seek a Ph.D. Perhaps you would become the world’s greatest authority on something like liver enzymes. If, however, you wanted to open up a general practice in Wichita, you would work toward a professional degree—an M.D.
When I decided to go back and earn my doctorate, I looked at both paths. The seminary I chose—Chicago Theological Seminary—offers both degrees. The Ph.D. is geared for people who want to teach at the seminary level. It requires fluency in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. The Doctor of Ministry degree, or D.Min., is geared toward those who want to serve in parish ministry. It was an easy choice for me to make. I love being a minister. I really do. This is my dream job. There is nothing in the world I would rather do than exactly what I am doing. So why would I want to spend several thousand hours of my life becoming fluent in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew? I have learned that fluency in Greek, Latin and Hebrew doesn’t have a great deal of relevance to my ministry.
I picked the Chicago program because it is highly respected, and unique. Six Chicago seminaries each accept five students into the program every year. This means I go through the program with a group of 30 people from six denominations. Because of the program’s reputation, professors from all over the country line up to teach the summer residencies. This allows us, in very small classes of just five or six, to study under the best seminary professors in the country.
This will be my third and final month-long trip to Chicago. Over the next year I will be completing my doctoral thesis, and God willing, I will have all of this behind me by this time next year. And I think that’s enough about the program. For reasons that will become apparent as the morning progresses, I will tell you the subject of my thesis later in the sermon. If you have any questions I haven’t addressed, please look me up in Fellowship Hall.
And now, let’s turn to the real subject of this sermon, which is Christian education in general, especially as it relates to our children. As time goes by I have more and more problems with religion; and I become more and more convinced that the teachings of Jesus are the only hope for a world that is teetering on the brink of destruction. I didn’t say that Christianity is the only hope. The Christian faith has become so corrupted, a large part of the church has lost its soul. In fact, the church constantly seeks ways to distance itself from everything Jesus said.
I have dedicated a lot of time over the past few years to the idea of peacemaking. I’ve read great thinkers, both secular and religious, who attempt to devise ways to resolve conflict in our world without resort to violence. But it always comes back to Jesus. Jesus taught us in the purest and simplest terms the only way to have peaceful world.
I know people in virtually every faith who are anchored on God’s truth; whose hearts are filled with love, and whose intentions are good. But if we eliminate the human race from this planet, I am convinced our demise will be brought about by people acting on their religious ideals.
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“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” say men and women on both sides of the religious and political battles in the Middle East. “There can be no peace without justice!” they shout. “It is not terror if I bomb your refuge camp, or if I blow up a bus full of children—that is justice! That is retribution!”
Jesus had it right. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. Warfare begets warfare. And once the cycle of violence starts, it is almost impossible to stop. After much study I have come to the conclusion that the situation in the Middle East is pretty much hopeless. Why? Because of the things people in that part of the world are teaching their children. Children are taught to respond to violence with violence. Children are taught that vengeance tastes much sweeter than mercy.
I’m sorry to say the modern church, in many cases, is teaching our children the same thing. We tell our children not to worry so much about what Jesus said. It’s who Jesus was that matters. Jesus is your personal savior who died for your sins. And that’s true—I believe that. I believe something happened at the cross that changed the world. But we should respond to the cross by looking back on the life of the man who was hung there and remembering what he said. We know he was who he was because of what he said and did.
We need to teach our children to follow Jesus. Instead we teach them to worship him. And that is much easier. It is a fairly simple matter to confess a belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, and to worship him in the form of the risen Christ. We can drop to our knees every now and then, say a prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, and then get on with the serious business of looking out for ourselves—our needs, our family, our church, our nation.
Worshipping Christ is a walk in the park compared to following Jesus. And Jesus knew that it is easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk. In the Sermon on the Mount he says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come offer your gift.” How could he be plainer? You can’t be in a right relationship with God if you are not in a right relationship with other people.
There is this unbreakable relationship between love of God and love of neighbor, although different people have different paths. Consider ancient Chinese religion. There was this ongoing dispute between Confucius and Lao-Tzu about how to live the proper life. Confucius said to seek harmony with your fellow man, and you would automatically be in harmony with the eternal. Lao-Tzu said to seek harmony with God, and you would automatically be in harmony with your fellow man.
Who was right? Christianity says they were both right! And Jesus said it both ways. In that passage from the Sermon on the Mount, he seems to side with Confucius. Make things right with your brother and sister, and then make your offering to God. On the other hand, Jesus also said the most important commandment is to love God with your heart, soul and mind; and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Sounds a bit like Lao-Tzu.
The point is, you can’t do one without the other. And that is not what we are teaching our children in much of the church. We are teaching them to love God, and to worship Christ, but not to worry too much about what Jesus said. After all, Jesus was the Son of God. He could afford to be idealistic. He would never expect us to actually follow him—only to worship him… Which is odd, since Jesus not one time in the Bible asks anybody to worship him, but repeatedly asks people to follow him.
Here’s the bottom line. Any religion that fails to make the world a more peaceful place; any religion that fails to make its followers more loving people; any religion that allows or encourages us to cause harm to others in God’s name—that religion has no value that I can see; in fact, it has become a tool not of God, but rather of the powers that stand against God. And yet, the world over, people of faith teach their children that it’s okay to build those bombs, to avenge those wrongs, to strike out with might in the name of goodness. It’s more than okay—it’s our duty.
There is a Crosby Stills Nash and Young song from the great album Déjà Vu called Teach Your Children Well. It begins, “You who are on the road must have a code that you can live by, and so become yourself.” Indeed! We define ourselves by the way we live, and each of us has a code—a set of rules—by which we live. We pass that code on to our children, and we have to ask ourselves: What kind of world are we creating with the things we teach our children?
I am appalled at much of what we teach our children. We teach them to look out for number one. We teach them that success is measured by the amount and value of the things we accumulate. We teach them that the world is one big apple, and they owe it to themselves to take the biggest bite out of the apple they possibly can.
I can’t influence the things our children are taught at home, or at school, or the things they learn from television and radio. But I do have some influence over what our children are taught in this place—at University Congregational Church. We are soon to begin a new phase in the Christian education of our children, and I am excited about it. Our overall philosophy will not change, but the manner in which we teach is about to enter a new dimension.
I want to talk a bit about what we teach our children at this place. This is not a light matter. This is important. I realized how important this is when one of my nieces approached me when she was about five years old to inquire about the condition of my soul. Her parents did not attend church, and thought they were doing something good when they sent her to Vacation Bible School at the church down the street from their house.
My niece looked me in the eye, and in a voice that was much too serious for such a young child, she said, “Uncle Gary, you’re going to hell.” I was shocked! I said to her, “Well honey, why do you think that?” And she whispered, “Because you haven’t been washed in the blood of the lamb.”
In my mind, what that church did to that little girl qualifies as child abuse. They took a metaphorical concept that most adults cannot get their minds around and inflicted it on a child. They convinced this little girl that everybody she knew was bound for eternal torment. They scared the daylights out of her. And undoubtedly, they thought they had done a wonderful thing.
I decided then that we would be very careful about what we teach our children in this place. And each year, those who teach our children are asked to use three simple statements as the basis for all they teach. These are the three things that I want every child who attends this church to know.
First, God loves you. Period. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more than God loves you right now. God loves you.
Second, you can learn about God by learning about Jesus. God is a mystery. Even grown-ups don’t understand everything there is to know about God. But we can learn what God is like by learning about Jesus.
Third, there is a difference between right and wrong, and you should always try to do what is right. You do this not to keep God from getting mad at you, but because you are good. You are a child of God, and because you are good you will want to do the right thing.
That’s it! Please notice, there is no threat of hell. There is no demand to go out and save people. There is no definition of the relationship between God and Jesus—only the fact that Jesus reveals God’s nature. Three simple rules by which everything we teach is tested: God loves you; you can learn about God by learning about Jesus; there is a difference between right and wrong, and you should try to do what is right.
That is Christian education. That is the code we try to pass on to the children of this church, and it is a code we can live by. In fact, those are the same three rules I use to measure the truth of my sermons. The things I say from the pulpit are the same things we teach our youth.
By now most of you know we have reorganized the Christian Education Department. We owe a great deal to Vickie Burk, who built this program into what it is today. She grew it to the point it was in a position to evolve to another level. After an extensive search we hired Karen Robu as Director of Youth Ministries. Karen is a great fit. As we sought the right person for this job, we discovered that most people who felt called to ministry felt they were called to save souls. That message is simply not congruent with what we preach and teach from this pulpit.
Remember, I told you I would reveal the topic of my doctoral thesis. The topic is, “Why preach if you don’t believe in saving souls?” It‘s a serious question. Most preachers preach with the intention of saving souls. That is not my purpose, at least not in the traditional sense. Oh, in the purest sense of the word, in which salvation means healing—spiritual healing—I guess you could say I believe ministers have a role in saving—healing—souls. But I figure your souls are not in my hands—they are in the hands of God. And so, my reason for preaching is to point people toward a relationship with God. I preach not salvation, but relationship.
And that’s what Karen Robu is going to teach our children: right relationships—with God and with people. The children’s wing of the church is going to go through some amazing changes soon—both physically, and in the way we teach our children. I won’t give it away, but I honestly believe that next year, Sunday morning will be the favorite time of the week for the children of this church.
Okay, enough about Christian education! It’s time to wrap this thing up and say goodbye for a few weeks, so I can go get a little more Christian education of my own, and spend some time working on my relationship with God. I’ll miss you. Standing in this pulpit is the greatest honor of my life. University Congregational Church is a special place, and I never forget that it is each of you who make it so.