Sunday, January 26, 2020

National Lutheran Schools Week

Our church service today marks the beginning of Lutheran School’s week, which was always one of my favorite weeks when I taught kindergarten. This week meant fun clothes and extra activities, all designed to help us celebrate the gift of Christian education, and the church service always meant children singing. 

As the school and center children gathered at the front of the church, I noticed a young child behind me who could not be coaxed to join the crowd. In her defense, it was a large group, but no manner of encouragement would change her mind. I leaned back and assured her she could sing from her seat, and dad agreed. Perhaps singing in front of a crowd wasn’t his thing either.

Later in the service, I realized to my joy that this timid young girl was singing along with our prayer liturgy and later sang, with abandon, my husband’s song of the Lord’s Prayer, which is a congregation favorite. No one had to nudge her; she simply joined in when she recognized what she heard. It was as if her faith floated on the air along with her singing. It was all I could do to stop myself from turning around and watching. 

My heart was full.

So what makes a child afraid of crowds able to sing along with adults? What encourages her to sing during the parts of the service not necessarily designed for her? She did not have to conjure up any courage – she sang from her heart, from her faith. This is the blessing of a Christian education. It produces faith in a child that leaks out in unexpected ways and tender moments.

You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. Deuteronomy 6:7

Just last week, I found myself speaking to a mother’s group at a sister church. Regardless of the topic I am asked to address, I always seem to circle round to the teaching of this Deuteronomy verse. I have found many ways of saying that teaching the faith is not a matter of quality lessons, but a quantity of experiences. Faith lessons should be diligently taught while sitting, walking, preparing for bed, and rising in the morning. In other words faith should show up all day and in all things. If children hear about faith in church, but not at home their brains will be less likely to pick up on the significance of this learning. If they hear about faith at home and in church but not any other place, the brain will relegate faith to those locations. A Lutheran education, that provides hearing, learning, practicing and sharing faith all day, is the blessing of Lutheran schools. 

Don’t get me wrong. I used to teach in Lutheran schools, and my children attended them. I can assure you that  rigorous academics, and the teaching and formation of solid values are essential areas of concern. I often speak for conferences for Lutheran teachers, and I know I have to stay up to speed on what is current to keep up with them. But, as important as a solid academic education is, it is not the most important thing.

I spent a few years learning how humans develop and spent many hours in classes reviewing theory and research on cognition. As I sat in and taught in those secular classrooms, I became even more convinced of the importance of Christian education. You see, we do not learn outside of a culture. Everything a child learns connects to what they see and experience in their family. You cannot put learning into separate boxes as it all connects. God designed us to learn faith through His Word and Sacrament and to make this learning a part of each moment of our lives. Faith learning is about diligence, and the Holy Spirit is the definition of diligence. We do best to work within this design.

My teacher friends in Lutheran schools who will be navigating the excitement of this week are diligent in the work of teaching the faith. They go beyond teaching and show their precious students how to live it. Faith becomes such a natural expression that the words "You hear us calling, You hear us calling, Abba Father." come spilling out of the mouth of a child too afraid to sing with her peers.

Today I am thankful for the many teachers who work so hard for less pay than their public school peers. I am grateful for teachers who put in long hours and willingly serve beyond their classroom duties. I am amazed by teachers who teach from a heart full of a God-given faith. (In addition to my Lutheran teacher friends I also thank God for my daughter and at least one former student who teach in other Christian schools.) I am especially thankful for how they all support parents in their sacred duty to teach the faith and to teach it diligently.

Thank you, Jesus.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Persistent Forgiveness for Persistent Hurt

Forgiveness works beautifully when the offender repents, and the one offended can set aside hurt. This process is the critical ingredient for growth in faith, growth in character, and growth in a relationship. 

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. II Chronicles 7: 14

Through no merit of our own, God brings healing and growth out of the process of forgiveness. This truth is His promise, found in the comfort and glory of His mercy. 

But, as dedicated sinners, we continually find ways to throw a wrench into the works. It is not unusual for us to find ourselves in a situation of persistent hurt, a situation where the change of behavior found in repentance is not likely to happen. We have people in our lives we know will hurt us again and again. We feel there is no hope to stop the pain and turmoil.

Forgiving becomes a particular challenge when the person hurting does not repent. We know the pain will come again. In such cases, the advice of the world is to withhold forgiveness.

Consider a wayward child obsessed with his own needs and struggles. He may refrain from repentance and continue in the actions that bring harm and hurt to himself and his family. Should he be forgiven when there is no evidence of repentance?

What about that person at work who, for reasons not known, continually stabs people in the back, making them look bad in front of others. Should she be forgiven in light of her motives?

What about the spouse that is once again, unfaithful, and assumes that the appearance of repentance is enough to earn forgiveness? Should this person be forgiven when his promise to change is not sincere?

We know the answers should be "yes," but our heart is reluctant. Instead, we sit in our pain, nurse it, and soon we harden our hearts. Our hearts reject hope, and then they reject the offender. 

The world tells us this is a good thing to do. Social media memes tell us that rejecting the repeat offender is healthy for the one who is hurt and offers the opportunity to heal. Cultural wisdom says we deserve better and that if we don't assert ourselves, we will hurt ourselves. The world says to stand up to those who hurt you to fight back, or at least walk away from that pain. The world says to have faith in you, in your value, in your strength.

The world is wrong. God is not happy to see His children cause each other pain, but His plan for dealing with persistent hurt does not just involve the one being hurt. He wants better for His children than brokenness. His love for us sees past our hurt toward a plan for a better life.

Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22

When we sit in our anger and pain, or when we cast it off by walking away, we hurt ourselves in ways we cannot imagine. Anger and hurt are two emotions that stop us from feeling empathy.  When the offender continues to hurt, we continue to feel anger. Gradually we lose the ability to empathize with the person causing the pain.

In most situations of sin, we want to forgive, but also find a way to disciple, or teach, the offender how to not repeat the offense. In cases of persistent hurt, sin that is tied to emotional brokenness, and sometimes mental illness, there is rarely hope for changing the behavior of the offender. If we lose empathy, we do not so much walk away from pain as we walk away from the opportunity to repair the brokenness. 

We need to take control of emotion to stop it from hurting us or damaging relationships. When we work with someone who repeatedly hurts us, it is one of the most challenging times to take control of our emotions. This control is hard won; found only in repetitive action.

So what is God's answer to chronic hurt? It is persistent forgiveness.

I am not advocating for simply allowing someone to continue to hurt you. It is healthy to protect yourself from abuse. However, forgiveness allows us to protect ourselves without losing empathy for the one who causes pain. If we do not understand their brokenness, we will not understand ours.

Forgive the person who hurts you. Pray for them. Look for ways to serve them. Do not serve to create guilt, but serve because God asks you to. In these actions, your ability to feel empathy for this person will grow. This empathy will give insight into their struggle as well as your own. The message your brain receives is that forgiveness is more important than anger or hurt. That sounds like healing to me.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6: 1-2

The world says to fight back and to protect yourself. God says to restore and bear burdens. Here we find very different techniques with very different outcomes. The world champions one; the other is a strenuous walk of trust and faith.

Fall into God's path to healing.