The Joy of Not Knowing it All: Why Christian Education in the Church Matters

The following was initially delivered as a sermon on June 12, 2016 for Christian education recognition Sunday at the Congregational Church in Exeter, but it’s relevant for your church if you are starting a new year of Christian education soon!

The Pew Research Center found in 2014 that only 14.7% of American adults are a part of a mainline Protestant denomination. That’s a church like ours, as well as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and the like. Membership was down 3.4% in only seven years.

And numbers get worse when you look generationally. Only 11% of Millennial young adults identify as mainline Protestants, compared to 26% of their grandparents’ generation. Our own denomination has gone from over two million members in 1957 to less than one million today. And each of the other mainline denominations can tell a similar story.

We also have the worst “retention rate” when it comes to our young people with 45%, less than half, of our youth continuing to claim our tradition into young adulthood. That number dips to 37%, or just over a third, when you look at Millennials. More and more of our youth are graduating from high school, stepping out into the world, and becoming “nones”.

So what does that have to do with Christian education? And what does it have to do with this story we read today, the one where Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven, they have to become like little children?

First, I think this story reminds us just how important children are, and just how much of our ministry has to be focused on them. We have to do the work that allows our youngest to get to know Jesus. They need to know that they are loved beyond measure by God. They need to know what Jesus taught about being good and kind and loving your neighbor. And they need us to make sure there are no barriers in their way as they do.

We work very hard to do that. We have a fantastic group of adult volunteers in this church. You teach Sunday school, you chaperone youth events, you show our youngest how to make music. From the very start of my ministry with you I’ve been so impressed by the way you take education and formation seriously, especially with our children and youth.

But that’s not all this text teaches. Because as much as Jesus was turning the culture of the times, and not so long ago times, on its head by saying children were supposed to be both seen and heard, he was also teaching the adults an important lesson.

Because not only was it their job to let the children come, he was telling them that they themselves had to become like children. They had to let go of their self-assurance and of appearing like they knew it all, and they had to remember what it was like to be young again. Only when they did that, could they really have a relationship with Christ.

And so what is it like to get to know Jesus the way that a child would?

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Apples for teachers at the Blessing of the Backpacks last September.

I was thinking about that this week and I was thinking about how our youngest learn. I was thinking about this at the 5th grader barbecue on Friday night when we were making s’mores over a fire. The conversation moved quickly from “how can we best toast marshmallows” to “what else can we burn in the fire”?

Don’t worry…nothing burned down. But as the questions came, as well as the limits, and a few well-supervised experiments happened, I realized something: more than anything else, the youngest among us are curious.

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about campfires, or Christ. They want to learn. They want to get to know more. They are not afraid of asking questions.

That’s a gift. Because for adults asking questions often feels like a sign of weakness. Not knowing it all is a red flag to others, we think. And so we grow incurious. And we don’t grow at all.

But that’s not what Jesus asked us to do. Jesus never told us to become mindless. He never told us to stop exploring. He never wanted a church of know-it-alls who stopped learning.

He wanted the curious. And he wanted disciples.

Take a minute and think about how you understand that word “disciple”.

When you hear it do you automatically think “followers of Jesus”? That wouldn’t be surprising. The word has certainly come to take on that meaning. But the reality is that the word has been used for so many other followers too. In Jesus’ time a lot of teachers and leaders had a group of disciples.

Disciples would follow someone attentively because being a disciple, to anyone, had to do with one thing in particular: learning. Disciples sincerely thought that the person they were following had something to teach. So much so that the actual word that the original New Testament texts, written in Greek, use for disciples is mathetes. You don’t need to remember that exact word, but know that the easiest translation of it is simply this: students, or learners.

Many of you are teachers or educators of some kind. You want well-educated church leaders. And I would guess that if I asked you what wanted for their children or grandchildren or any other young person in their lives, one of the first things you would say would be “I want them to get a good education.” Or, “I want them to love learning.”

That’s a good thing because you can’t help but grow when you learn. Conversely, when you stop learning, you stop growing.

The same is true for Christians. If we stop learning and growing, then we can’t do any of the work of the church. Learning is the way we prepare to be Christians. But even in churches that are filled with highly educated people, we sometimes forget that.

In order to become disciples, simply reading and listening is not enough. One can devote hours to the academic study of Christian faith without any real desire to be a disciple. In order to be that, you have to take it one step further; you have to be willing to grow. And there is no growth I know of that does not demand change.

And spiritual growth starts with knowing your purpose, and knowing who and whose you are. A church culture that encourages this growth acts like oxygen to a fire. The flames are fed, and the fire blazes. But a church culture that dismisses faith development and spiritual growth, and that fails to cultivate a sense of purpose, acts like a natural damper. The fire will burn out, one log at a time, until all you have left are ashes.

I believe that’s one reason that the statistics aren’t looking very promising for mainline churches. Because, historically, we haven’t emphasized discipleship at every age. And if we aren’t fostering curiosity and growth for adults, they will find it elsewhere.

That’s one reason I asked everyone to read the New Testament this summer. Because you can’t read the Bible and not get more curious. This is not a book of easy answers. It’s one that invites us into a relationship. It’s one that reminds us that we don’t know everything. And it’s one that, if we come to it with the hearts of children, makes us go deeper, and grow.

If we are going to teach our children and youth well, then we have to become like them. Our own Christian growth cannot end with our last youth group meeting or Sunday school class. To be a disciple, you have to commit to growing. And you have to be as curious as the youngest among us.

Thankfully, looking around at our children and youth, we have some pretty good teachers in that respect.

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By the way, is your church looking for a new book for your adult Christian education program? Want something that a reading group could devour? Check out “Glorify” here: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

The Urgency of Lent: Third Sunday of Lent, 2016

I never seem to have enough time. Perhaps you can relate to that. I try to squeeze everything in, but I always wish for just one or two more waking hours in the day.

Wednesday was like that for me. I had a day that started with an obligation in Boston in the morning and ending with two meetings here at night. The thing is, I really wanted to get to the YMCA to work out. But at the only time I could have possibly gone, I had a conference call.

IMG_7962So I came up with a brilliant idea. I’d plug my headphones into my phone, put myself on mute, and listen to the call while I lifted weights. So there I was, trying to listen to the meeting, and balancing heavy weight all at the same time, and I thought to myself…maybe this isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

That’s when I got to thinking about priorities. One of the lessons I try to teach our youth is this: Never give the best of yourself to someone or something that can never love you back.

I’ve been surprised at how much that advice resonates with young adults. Not only does it become the measure by which boyfriends and girlfriends are judged, but it becomes a metric for the larger questions in life too. Questions of meaning take center stage.

Most surprisingly, though, it also generates discussion in their families about the way precious resources, like time and money, are used. I have been amused that it is those discussions, more than any about dating or sex or love, that trouble their parents.

We don’t talk about idolatry much, despite the caution against it throughout Scripture. That is ironic given that idolatry flourishes in our culture. We have not yet started building literal golden calves, but we have all spent plenty of time worshipping at equally dangerous altars. Money, success, popularity, greatness, security…they are powerful gods. And in worshipping these gods we have too often driven ourselves to the point of living overwhelming lives.

In Lent we are called to turn away from what can never love us back, and toward that which can. Counter to the narrative we often write for ourselves, though, we are not called by a patient God who speaks to us casually or without urgency. Instead, we are called by a God with time-sensitive conviction.

In this week’s Scripture Jesus tells a story about a fig tree, a gardener, and a land owner. Year after year the tree fails to bear fruit. Tired of wasting good soil, the land owner tells the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener refuses to give up, and negotiates a one year reprieve for the tree. They pledge to take care of it and shore it up with good soil. If even after all of that it does not bear good fruit, the gardener says, then you can cut it down.

I often want to ask the people I know who feel overwhelmed “Why do you keep living like this? Why do you make the choices that leave you overextended and exhausted? Do you want to live a life utterly devoid of abundant new fruit?”

Or, put another way, “Why do you give the best of yourself to the things that can never love you back?”

I think we all want to believe that we have infinite time to start loving the right things, and bearing good fruit. But despite the urgency that defines the rest of our lives, scheduling everything from the car pool to the 401k contribution, we fail to respond to Christ’s call to transformation with anything other than hesitation. There is always tomorrow, after all.

In Lent, though, Christians are called to live with spiritual urgency. We have to proclaim boldly with our choices that our transformations can no longer wait. We have neglected bearing good fruit for far too long, choosing instead to focus on what will not bring us joy.

The good news is that there is great freedom in no longer having to wait to focus on what matters the most. Now is the time to put the first things first; no excuses.

This urgency does not come from a fear that God will smite us. I do not believe that God wants to destroy us the way the land owner wanted to destroy the dormant fig tree. But I do believe that Christ spoke with urgency because he knew how quickly most of us are destroying ourselves. And I believe God wants before for us than that.

One of the few fairnesses of life is the fact that each of us is given an equal 168 hours per week.
It is those 168 hours that somehow baffle us all though. I know of few people who feel they have enough time to do everything they need to get done, let alone do anything they want to do. It does not matter how many modern conveniences we have, we just will never have enough time.

The unfortunate reality is that because of that, our spiritual life often suffers. Instead of being our basic foundation, spiritual practices somehow become luxuries that we squeeze in only if we have enough time. Church is great, but we have to fix the roof Sunday morning. Prayer would be wonderful, but who has the time to sit around with their eyes closed and talk to God? It would be interesting to read the Bible one day, but these financial reports from work have to be read first.

I get that. Pastors are not immune and, despite literally being surrounded by church all day, I sometimes catch myself feeling disconnected from my spiritual life. But I have also noticed how that spiritual disconnection is unsustainable.

So often we look around to find that we are no longer bearing spiritual fruit. It is in those moments that we can become our own gardeners, cultivating the space and the good soil needed to once again grow in abundance.

That will not be easy, though. It is going to take a shifting of priorities, and the deliberate reapportionment of some of our 168 hours. But one lesson that focusing on spiritual growth has consistently taught me is this: no matter what other demands are made of us, we make time for what really matters to us in life.

Billy Graham once said that if you really want to find out what you worship, you should look at your checkbook. I think there’s wisdom in that. But in our over scheduled world, I’d say this instead: if you really want to find out what you worship, look at your calendars and planners. That will tell you the truth.

It the end, I believe that God wants us to have new life, and that this life will only happen when we start telling one another the hard truth: the clock is ticking, the time is now, and life is too short to waste another minute on what can never love us back.

So back to the story I was telling you. The conference call came to an end while I was bench pressing. No one on the other end was so much the wiser. But that’s when I heard someone say on the other end, “Emily…are you still there? Would you close us with prayer?”

And so right there, in the middle of the free weight area of the YMCA, I took the phone off mute and prayed out loud. My guess is a few fellow lifters were looking at me funny. But maybe it was the reminder I needed that sometimes it’s time to slow down, switch gears, and focus on what matters.

That moment illustrated to me in a very real way that God doesn’t always wait for us to be in the ideal place to get our attention. God is calling us now. And sometimes it’s urgent enough that we need to put down our heavy lifting, rethink our priorities, and pick up. Amen?

Learning to Multiply: Sermon for May 10, 2015

I’ve been thinking this week about learning how to multiply. Do you remember when you first learned? I was in about third grade when we had to memorize our times tables. Some were easy. 1×1 is 1. 1×2 is 2. Some got harder like 9×7 is 63. And some I could never remember like 11×12 is 132.

Math was one subject that just never came easily to me. And, when I was already struggling, the teacher introduced this thing we would have do in math class. She handed out these cards with all these multiplication problems on them, and she would say “go” and then you had something like two minutes to do the entire sheet correctly.

It was the most anxiety-producing academic experience I ever had, one that not even my ordination exams in seminary rivaled. And this week I had dinner with a friend, and I talked about what my sermon for today, and about learning how to multiply. And she said, “Did you ever have to do those things…with all the problems that you had to complete in two minutes?”

It became clear that learning to multiply was a traumatic experience for many of us.

And yet, multiplication is about more than just math. It even has a place in the spiritual life. And though we don’t have to do those timed worksheets, we still have to learn how to do it.

Loaves and Fish Roundel Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Loaves and Fish Roundel
Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Today’s story tells us a little of why. The story of the loaves and fish is one we hear at least once a year in church. It’s also the only miracle of Jesus that is told in all four Gospels, which I think is a pretty good indicator of its importance. In each of the four tellings the details vary just a little, but the main story remains the same: Jesus is preaching. The people all come out to hear him. And they are hungry. And there are so many that the disciples look out and wonder how they are going to feed them all. And they tell Jesus, “we could spend six months’ wages and we couldn’t afford to even start to feed everyone.”

One of them, Andrew, points out that one boy has five loaves of bread and two fish, but he says “What use is that?”

But Jesus says something different. He takes the boy’s food, and he has the crowd of five thousand sit down. Then he blesses the loaves and fish and sends them out into the crowd. And when all is said and done, not only does everyone eat, but there are baskets filled up with all the extras.

Now, what really happened that day on that hill? There are ways to explain it away. Some say it never really happened. And others say that the real miracle was that once one person decided to share the others around them felt like they could do the same and it turned out there really was enough for everyone.

And, maybe there’s something to that. It does take a small miracle to get over our fear about never having enough and to instead share abundantly with others. But, what I think happened that day, more than anything, had to do with Jesus. And multiplication.

Here’s why. Do you remember your times tables, and the rule about zero? Zero times any number always equals what? Zero. 0 x 1 = 0. 0 x 37 = 0. 0 x 984 = 0. This was a revelation to me. It was like finding out there was a free space in math. You cannot multiply 0 and ever get something else.

But with even a little bit, multiplication can work wonders. Even more than addition, if you want to build something you have to learn to multiply.

Think about the story for a moment. It has always struck me as important that Jesus did not start with zero. Personally, I think he still could have figured out a way for everyone to get fed. But I think there’s something important about the fact that the only thing he initially had to work with were five loaves of bread, and two fish, brought to him by a small child. I don’t think it’s an accident that Scripture tells us about that first, small gift. Because it may not have been much, but it was something.

So, like I said, there are some who believe that what happened next was addition. People opened up their own bags, and added to the common meal. And like I said, maybe that’s true. But, I think what really happened was multiplication. Jesus took what was given, and transformed it into something far greater and better than it could be on its own.

I think that’s what happens when God gets involved in something. I think we bring what we are willing to give, and what we are willing to see transformed. And I believe that God doesn’t just add to it. God takes what we give and multiplies it into something we couldn’t imagine.

To me that is what blessing looks like. It’s not God just giving us more. It’s God creating something new out of what we give, and multiplying the blessing until what we end up with is so much bigger and better than we could imagine.

A small child dared to share what little he had. Jesus did not just say “okay, here’s a few more fish”. Jesus multiplied it so it fed the masses, and there was an abundance left.

The same is true of anything we give to God, and it’s true of our spiritual lives. When we give God just a small part of ourselves, whether in prayer or meditation or service, we find that God gives us back something even better. God gives us a sense of God’s presence, and love and grace. God renews us for the work we do, and gives us joy.

That’s what happens when we stop holding on to things so tightly, whether our time or our gifts or even our fears, and we let go, and let God work with them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one who brought the fish and bread to Jesus that day was a child. Because I think children understand in an intrinsic way that we are not transformed by what we hold on to. They understand, because they have not yet learned otherwise, that when we live our lives with our hearts open, incredible things can happen.

It’s that spirit of children, that willingness to let God in, that Jesus himself commended to his disciples. Jesus said unless we become like little children, we will never get it. Unless we learn to put aside our fear and let God work with what we have to give, no matter if people are scoffing on the sidelines and saying it’s not enough, we will never understand how God can multiply our blessings.

I’m always struck by the fact that even while the disciples talked about how few people that boy’s fish and bread could feed, the boy still gave them to Jesus anyway. And I’m struck by the fact that none of the disciples opened up their own bags. And so Jesus used the small gifts of a child to show everyone what he could do.

Too often, we adults depend on the slow and sure gains of addition. We don’t want the risk of handing things over. And even when it comes to growing spiritually we don’t want to invest in something bigger than ourselves when we could just hold on to what little we have, the way some people stash money under a mattress, adding a few dollars every so often. It’s safer that way. You can’t lose anything. Or so we think.

But you also don’t gain that much either. Because you’re just adding, and not multiplying.

There’s a math problem, disguised as a story, that I like a lot. In it, a person is given a choice between two things. He can either have $10,000 a day for 31 days. Or, a penny on the first day that is doubled for each of the next 30 days. In other words, you get a penny on the first day, two on the second, four on the third, and so on.

The choice sounds easy at first. You take the sure thing, the $10,000 a day. Because if you take the other option, even after 21 days, you only have a little over $10,000. You could have had more than that on day two. But if you hang in there, by the time you get to day 28, you have $1.3 million. And by the time you get to the end of the month, when the people who are adding $10,000 a day have $310,000, you have over $10 million.

Unless you are starting with nothing, unless you are holding everything back, multiplication always beats addition. And God’s blessing is like multiplication. It doesn’t settle for just giving us more. It creates real growth.

Yesterday morning, several dozen of us gathered in our vestry to talk about our natural church development focus on spirituality. And many talked very openly about the fact that this feels like new ground. It’s easy to talk about how our week was, someone shared. It’s a lot harder to talk about our spiritual lives. Others shared about how they didn’t feel they knew how to grow spiritually. Others said they needed resources and examples of spiritual practices. Some, who were really honest, talked about being afraid of what it means to embark on a spiritual journey.

I hear all of that. And, you never have to do anything you don’t want to do in this church.

But, I want to offer this image. What if we are all there on that mountaintop with Jesus, hungry, and hoping to be fed. And what if have something small that we can give, something we are so afraid to give up. And what if we are being asked to make the choice not to hold onto it, but to give it to God, and let God bless it.

That’s what deepening your spiritual life is like. You might not feel like you have all that much to give, but you have more than you know. You have it because you, and your spirit, were created by God. And all you have to do is step up, trust your spirit in God’s hand, and get ready to see the ways God can bless you on this journey. Get ready for the ways God will take just a little, and multiply it into a blessing you won’t believe.

I’ll close with this. I have a pastor friend named Jack. This week I was reflecting on something I once heard him say. He asked a group what the fruit of an apple tree is. Most answered “an apple, of course”.

But Jack disagrees. He says the true fruit of an apple tree is not an apple, but another tree.

In our spiritual lives, too often we settle for the apples, because they often feel hard enough to get. But what if God is hoping that we won’t just settle for a quick spiritual snack anymore? What if maybe for too long we’ve been settling for what has been lying around on the ground, instead of believing in the possibility of something better? What if God is waiting to help us plant those spiritual seeds, water them, and watch them grow into a tree of their own? What if God doesn’t want us to settle for a spiritual life that fills us for a few minutes? And what if God wants us to truly plant for a lifetime, and beyond?

The seeds are in our hands. We can hold on to them. Or we can plant them in God’s good soil, watch them multiply, and let them grow. Amen?