Saturday, October 29, 2016

“Boasting of the Good Stuff” - October 30, 2016

II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

            I kind of miss the three-hour Good Friday services that a lot of us grew up with.  When they went away they took with them a good deal of the solemnity that Good Friday really should have.  One thing that I do not miss, however, is the series of sermons on the Seven Last Words or, as I once heard somebody call it, the Pillsbury Preach-Off.  Nobody really ever intends for worship to become competitive, but it does happen that people make comparisons even when they don’t mean to do that.  Put seven preachers in the same pulpit in three hours, though, and there will be someone at some point who thinks either, “I wish I had said that,” or “I think I could have put that better.”  That’s human nature.
            On the other hand, a lot of outright bragging goes on in the church world.  It often strikes me when I see some mega-church spring up in a cornfield or adding on another wing that somebody somewhere is going to be insufferable about it.  Instead of adding on another service, ridiculous amounts of money are spent on making the sanctuary so big that people in back cannot see the front through the haze from the fog machines and have to have those big screens and jumbotrons projecting the whole thing.
            Again, they don’t always mean it to happen, but the attitude that can come through at times toward smaller, more traditional churches can be condescending.  “Oh, don’t you have anyone directing traffic?”  The comments in return imply that they are all flash-and-dazzle and no substance, with jabs about coffee lounges and holy hipsters.  That’s not fair, either.  (And I myself just made a cheap shot like that, so – guilty as charged.)
            If there is any place for boasting, it has to be boasting about something that we have nothing to do with directly.  It is boasting about what God is up to.  There are a lot of places where the Psalms encourage us to do exactly that, and the New Testament continues the practice, where Paul’s letters often use the word “boast” with the same admonitions.
“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” [Galatians 6:14]
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.[Ephesians 2:8-10]
If we boast of the good stuff that is happening, we should do it in such a way that it recognizes and celebrates that it really is God who is working wonders all the time.
            Those wonders are not necessarily the great, external achievements that can be reduced to numbers.  They may be what William Pierson Merrill called “conquests of the spirit” in a Thanksgiving hymn that we sometimes sing and that resonates in (forgive me for mentioning this) an election season:
“Not alone for mighty empire,
Stretching far over land and sea,
Not alone for bounteous harvests,
Lift we up our hearts to Thee.
Standing in the living present,
Memory and hope between,
Lord, we would with deep thanksgiving,
Praise Thee more for things unseen.
Not for battleships and fortress,
Not for conquests of the sword,
But for conquests of the spirit
Give we thanks to Thee, O Lord;
For the priceless gift of freedom,
For the home, the church, the school,
For a place of true belonging,
In a land the people rule.
For the armies of the faithful,
Souls that passed and left no name;
For the glory that illumines
Patriot lives of deathless fame.
For our prophets and apostles,
Loyal to the living Word,
For all heroes of the spirit,
Give we thanks to Thee, O Lord.”
Paul speaks of the gifts of God that he sees among the Thessalonians in that vein, even in hard times.
“We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.” [II Thessalonians 1:3-4]

The growth of faith and of love are always to be celebrated, with the ways that they are shown being examples.
            So let me brag a little bit.  Do you realize how deep the care and concern of this congregation for its community is?  It is so deep that about one-third of the worshiping congregation helps out with cooking and serving meals to people who can use them on a regular basis.  (And we could still use a hand with that program, by the way.  The numbers of people eating dinner at St. Peter’s has been going up and a few more cooks and servers would be good to have.)  Do you realize that we have people who don’t make a big deal of it, but who put in time at PACS and the Clinic and Meals on Wheels and at the library, who coach kids at sports and volunteer at the firehouse?  The concern goes far afield, too.  We have people who work with students in Philadelphia.  We have people with ties to Christian communities in Central America.  I could go on.
            God uses the connections we have, person to person, to reach those who need the good news of Jesus in sometimes unexpected ways.  The Upper Room Prayer Center is part of the work we support through the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship. They get about 800 calls a day.  A story that showed up in their one of their blurbs this past week said this:
“Brian is serving a life sentence in a federal prison for drug trafficking. One Thursday afternoon, he decided to use his few minutes of phone time to connect with The Upper Room Living Prayer Center. 
Most who call the prayer center ask for healing, strength, or divine guidance, so Brian’s request caught our volunteer off guard, especially when Brian identified himself as a prison inmate. 
‘Will you pray a prayer of gratitude with me?’ Brian asked.
Brian told the volunteer, ‘I am where I need to be, and I am making a difference in the lives of men I meet here in prison. I am thankful that God has guided me to do the right thing. While other guys get shorter sentences, I am thankful to be serving my time. It’s the right thing to do.’
Brian and the volunteer prayed together. They prayed that Brian would have strength and courage, and that he would be a good example to those around him. The volunteer reminded Brian that the prayer center network would continue to pray for—and with—him.”
That’s the sort of thing that’s worth boasting about.  That’s the good stuff that God and God alone can bring about.  And isn’t it good to know that he does?

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfil by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” [I Thessalonians 1:11-12]

Saturday, October 22, 2016

“After the Marathon” - October 23, 2016

II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

I’m used to thinking about this passage from II Timothy as a funeral reading.  The way it talks about having run and having fought and having kept the faith all look back on someone’s life; the way it speaks of the crown that is reserved speaks of the rewards of heaven.  When you think about it, though, these words were not written about someone who had already died.  They are words from someone who was expecting to die shortly, probably by way of martyrdom, but who was still alive.

“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.” [I Timothy 4:6]
These are the words of someone who has already run the marathon, but the cool-down lap is still going on.

            Can someone say such things of one’s own life?  I’ve done a good job?  I’ve gotten it right?  Apparently so.  Mind you, it doesn’t mean that you are saying that you have done the best job possible nor that you have not made terrible mistakes nor that you have always had the best judgment.  What it says is that you have muddled through and that, when you look at everything taken together, it has been worth it.  I heard a TED talk by a man named Dan Ariely who remarks,

”Think about something like mountaineering and mountain climbing. If you read books of people who climb mountains, difficult mountains, do you think that those books are full of moments of joy and happiness? No, they are full of misery.  In fact, it's all about frostbite and having difficulty walking, and difficulty breathing -- cold, challenging circumstances.  And if people were just trying to be happy, the moment they would get to the top, they would say, "This was a terrible mistake. I'll never do it again."[1]
We all know that isn’t how it works.  When somebody gets to that mountaintop they look out on everything below with a sense of accomplishment and elation.  They will, of course, have to climb back down.  When they return, though, a bit of the experience stays with them.

The sense of accomplishment and achievement that they share with the rest of us provides encouragement when we, as we all will, have moments when we wonder if it is worthwhile to press on.  For runners, it’s called “hitting the wall”.  Comments I read by people who have experienced it say things like

“It's a different feel for each person, but in severe cases you feel totally exhausted, you can fall down to the ground in a limp pile of body mass and pass out... in  mild cases, you can feel  tired, your body is telling to to stop and rest, and the more you try to push it, the more it feel like gravity is pulling you down to where you have no more energy to take another step … your body is saying ‘give me rest PLEASE!’”[2]
What gets people through is both physical training and mental conditioning.  Without both, the race will end right then and there.

The same is true of life in Christ.  Discipleship is more like a marathon than a walk in the park.  We may feel like we are a cup that has had its contents poured out on the ground, which is what a libation is.  Part of the conditioning that keeps us going in the hard times when God seems distant or hope seems like a dream is the encouragement of knowing that others who have run the course have declared it is worth pushing on to a finish line that we might not see, but which we can be sure is somewhere up ahead.

                We may or may not ever know how far that line may be.  It might be around the corner or it might be another eighteen miles ahead.  Only God sees the whole course and fully understands how our lives fit into the greater work that he is composing as he weaves them together with the lives of others who are running ahead of us or following behind.

            You know, too, that a marathon is not like other races.  In a sprint or even a 5-K event, there is one big winner, or maybe a handful of contenders who are cheered across the finish line when they get there.  In a marathon, though, it is such an achievement simply to finish that people stand around, sometimes for hours, applauding anybody who gets there.  So, too, with the kind of race that the Bible describes. 

“From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” [II Timothy 4:8]
In two weeks we will be celebrating All Saints’ Day and, as we do pretty much every year, we will sing, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest…”  I am getting ahead of things, maybe, but I would point out one stanza of that hymn:

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia!  Alleluia!”

It’s good to recall stories of people who have had it harder than we ever have, and harder than I pray we ever will, who have been coached across the line by Jesus himself.

            The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was implicated in an attempt to kill Hitler and taken to a prison where he continued to act as pastor to the other prisoners.  One of them recalled how, the Sunday after Easter and just three weeks before the Allies liberated the camp, he prayed with a group of them and spoke on the words of I Peter 1:3

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Remembering that day, he said,

“Bonhoeffer spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought. …He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said:
            ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer.  Get ready to come with us.’  Those words ‘Come with us’ – for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only – the scaffold.
            We bade him good-bye – he drew me aside – ‘This is the end,’ he said, ‘For me the beginning of life.’”[3]

For anyone who finishes the race in faith, whether in prison or in bed, it is more than a finish line.  It is the beginning of life.

[3] Payne Best as quoted in Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 528.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

“Why Bother with the Bible?” - October 16, 2016

II Timothy 3:14-4:5

            Why bother with the Bible?

            In many cases, people’s first contact with its words comes in the snippets that we hear read week by week.  That’s if they go to church.  If they don’t – and most do not – then they hear the Christmas story recited in the King James Version by Linus every year, sponsored by Dolly Madison, and that’s about it.  Occasionally they may hear the words of Genesis recited by someone who is trying to convince them that the world was created in six days and that modern science is evil.  Perhaps they hear someone arguing that the Ten Commandments should be in every courtroom, but they have no idea what those commandments say.  Their knowledge of the exodus – depending on their age – comes from either a movie starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner or Disney’s cartoon version, The Prince of Egypt.  Maybe they get the idea to read the Bible straight through, and get bogged down in Leviticus or Numbers. 

            Then there are the competing scriptures.  Some of them are ancient – the Hindu writings called the Upanishads were compiled between 800 and 500 B.C., around the time that the prophets were speaking to Israel.  Muslims believe that the Koran was dictated to Muhammed in a series of visions and revelations beginning in the year 609 and concluding in the year 632.  Some scriptures are recent – the Mormons claim that their Book of Mormon was written by people living in the Americas between 2200 B.C. and 421 A.D. and that a copy of it was written on gold plates in Egyptian and buried near the Finger Lakes in New York where it was dug up in 1827 by Joseph Smith, to whom an angel appeared and gave magic eyeglasses that enabled him to translate it into English before taking both the plates and the glasses away into heaven. 

            These are not new problems for Christians to address.  From the beginning, we have spoken to people who have said, “I don’t get all of this,” or, “This was written by and for people who are long dead and has nothing to do with us,” or, “These writings may have a lot of good in them, but so does Homer or Plato; what makes them so special?”

            Paul told Timothy to pay attention to the Bible for the value of its moral instruction.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” [II Timothy 3:16-17]

Let’s be honest, even though it is could be taken for cultural arrogance.  Different scriptures authorize different codes of behavior.  Yes, it is true that you can find a version of the Golden Rule in religious traditions worldwide.  There is a lot of good in the Buddha’s emphasis on compassion and in Muhammed’s insistence on giving to charity.  However, Buddhism’s belief in reincarnation does mean that there are times that Buddhist monks will protest political injustice by setting themselves on fire, while Judaism and Christianity hold that the end of life is properly in God’s hand alone.  It is wrong to kill yourself to make a point.  Again, the Koran insists on a strict separation between God and creation, including humanity.

“Say, ‘He is God, One:
God, the Eternal,
not begetting and not begotten,
and there is no one like the One.’” [Sura 112]

That sets up a very different relationship with humankind from what we meet in the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  …And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” [John 1:1, 14]

            That, in turn, brings me to what, for a Christian, has to be the whole point of the scriptures.  It isn’t only that they provide moral instruction (which they do).  It isn’t only that they provide us with a language of prayer (which they do).  It isn’t just that they provide a philosophical framework for looking at “life, the universe, and everything”.  All kinds of writing addresses questions like why there is suffering and what happens when we die and how we should live. 

What matters about the Christian scriptures, in fact, is that they talk about these things not in terms of ourselves, but of God.  The people in the Bible come and go, along with human nations and cultures that seemed, at the time, so permanent and timeless.  What is steady and constant throughout is God.

            And yet through the Bible we learn that ours is a God who does not stay way out there, compassionate but distant.  Our God comes to earth and is born as a crying baby, has differences with parents as a teenager, goes to work in the family business, experiences grief and loss, makes friends who turn on or abandoned him in his hour of need, gets arrested, is convicted and sent to a gruesome death, in the course of which he undergoes his own deep torment of soul as well as body.  Only we have that understanding of God, and it comes to us through the witness of those who have gone before and found in it the strength to live and the assurance of their eternal worth in God’s eyes, a strength and assurance that they saw fit to share with others and on and on until it reaches us.  Some of that witness they even wrote down.

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” [II Timothy 3:14-15] 

It is through the Bible that we come to understand or at least sense what God had been preparing from the very beginning of time.  Through all the struggles of a nomad family looking back to Abraham and Sarah as their founders, God has been at work.  Through the longing for freedom of enslaved people and through the challenges of using well the freedom they were given, God has been at work.  Through the intricacies of law and liturgy; through the experience of good government and bad; through war and peace, victory and exile; through the endless proverbs of those who sought wisdom in daily life and in the loving scolding of the prophets – God has been at work laying a foundation.

            For what?  For us to be able to hear a Word that is spoken in a human life and human history, not just in letters on a page, though without those letters we would never comprehend what was going on and with them we still may be struck with wonder. 

Why bother with the Bible?  Bother with it, wrestle with it, be bored with it or excited by it, but pay attention because it points beyond itself as

“sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

There is nothing magic in its words, but there is something of utter importance in its message about the living Word, Jesus.  Albert Schweitzer put it well:

“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.[1]

[1] Albert Schweitzer, The Search for the Historical Jesus, last paragraph.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

“No Need to Be Ashamed” - October 9, 2016

II Timothy 2:8-15

            Three of the letters in the New Testament are called the “Pastoral Epistles” because they specifically address the ways that the early Church was beginning to organize itself for the long run.  They give advice to church leaders, not so much people like Peter and Paul, but to the next generation or two that followed them.  It’s the sort of advice that mentors pass on – not details about specific situations, like appears in Paul’s letters to Corinth and Thessalonica, but broad outlines and things to keep in mind over a lifetime.  It’s advice like:

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” [II Timothy 2:15]

You would think that is sort of self-evident and basic: “Don’t be ashamed of doing your job.”  It isn’t always that simple, though.  It doesn’t just apply to preachers, either, though that’s where this observation starts.

            There’s a Lutheran preacher in Denver named Nadia Bolz-Weber who has a very effective ministry to people who are not the traditional church-types.  Her preaching style is very earthy, which is why when I quote her there are some words and expressions that I’m going to leave out or alter.  It’s also one reason that she tells about being very nervous when her arm was twisted to get her to speak in front of a national gathering of youth.  She wrote out her speech and practiced it, then shared it with her own kids, who told her point-blank that it was lame.  That set off a search for encouragement that only made things worse.

            “As soon as I was able to tame my self-pity, I called my friend Kristen and ran through my talk with her.  She had been in youth ministry for over a decade and was kind enough to take my panicked call.  Surely she could bolster my fading confidence.
            ‘It sounds like you’re talking to their parents.  Here’s what you might think of saying instead,’ and she outlined an entire message for me, all of which was solid and none of which was anything I would ever say.  Freaking out, I just walked the dog faster and called my friend Shane, who had spoken at these large-scale youth gatherings before and, like myself, was not a ‘youth ministry person.’
            ‘Oh honey, you should be scared.  Teenagers are a rough audience.’
            Before going to bed that night, I remember thinking two things: (1) I’m going to eat it with a fork in front of thirty-five thousand people; (2) I need better friends.  I lay awake, anticipating the deafening sound of the crowd not laughing at my opening.  I spent most of that night fantasizing about ways to miss my plane, become ill, or have a nervous breakdown.”[1]

            Honestly, who cannot feel for her?  It doesn’t have to be thirty-five thousand people, mostly between the ages of 12 and 18.  One article that I read claimed that about 75% of the population has some level of anxiety about public speaking.[2]  It runs all the way from that uneasy nervousness that guarantees there will always be prayer in school, “Please don’t let her call on me!  Please don’t let her call on me!” to the churning stomach of a doctor or nurse thinking, “How do I tell the family it looks like suicide?”  In between are a whole lot of other situations that are generally just as inescapable.

            When it comes to sharing the gospel, though – which, by the way, is up to all of us and not just the so-called “professionals” – there’s the added pressure of “who am I to speak?” coming into it.  That was one of the problems that was going on with Pastor Bolz-Weber.  She was still worried sick on the plane when she found herself sitting next to a girl she describes as having “dyed pink bangs hanging over her face like a protective visor, at once inviting and rejecting attention.”  The girl started copying an Anime character onto a sketch pad she had in her backpack and, says the writer, “Her shoulders turned in and down as though she were trying to hide what her pink bangs couldn’t.”

            Now, one thing I didn’t mention about Nadia Bolz-Weber is her own appearance.  She was going to allude to it in the opening line that had fallen flat with everyone, setting off her spiral into self-doubt.  She had planned to start out:

“Some people don’t think I look very Lutheran because of the tattoos, but then I show them that I have the entire liturgical year inked on my left arm, Advent to Pentecost.  I’m like, hey … you can’t get more Lutheran than that!”[3]

The girl on the plane noticed them, though, and they got into a tentative conversation about how much some of them had hurt, and eventually the girl opened up about some of the real hurts in her own life, which were pretty serious.  Only slowly did it occur to either of them that they were headed to the same place, because neither of them looked like most of the other passengers that she says “were wearing matching T-shirts from various Lutheran congregations, like Midwestern gang colors.”

            Now this is where the story intersects again with what II Timothy is saying, when it says,

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed…”

We are who we are, and God loves each and every one.  Jesus’ suffering on our behalf is proof enough that we matter in God’s eyes even when we may think that we don’t merit that.  In fact, we don’t merit that, but that doesn’t stop God from loving us.  The problem is learning to trust that notion, because we are so very often harder on one another and harder on ourselves than God is.   Bolz-Weber again:

“Sometimes I’m so thick that God has no choice but to be almost embarrassingly obtuse.  Like sending me a hurting kid with glistening lines cut in her arm – a kid with protective pink bangs, a kid who doesn’t fit, a kid who in her own way said to me, Oh, hey, God told me to tell you something: Get over yourself.[4]

            When you do that, then you can stop being so self-conscious about every little thing.  That, in turn, lets you put attention where it belongs: on loving God and loving your neighbor, which is the ultimate and most effective way of “rightly explaining the word of God”.

            So let me put it in my own words.  Who cares if you get all the details right, let alone the words?  There is nobody who isn’t going to fit in some ways and not others.  Share the good news however you can, and don’t worry how it turns out every time – leave that in God’s hands.  Cut yourself a break when you do that, and not just then, either.  There is nobody who has their whole life totally together.  If you listen to that short poem or hymn that the reading this morning includes, it talks about how we get things right and also get things wrong and how even Jesus may get frustrated with us at times, but in the end he sticks with us through all of it, like we are part of him – because we are.

“The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us; 
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.”
[II Timothy 2:11-13]

Do your best, and don’t worry so much.  He’s the one whose opinion matters the most, not even yours.  And he says you’re worth everything.

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (New York: Convergent Books, 2015), 34.
[2] Lisa Fritscher, “Glossophobia: the Fear of Public Speaking – Symptoms, Complications and Treatments” at
[3] Bolz-Weber, Ibid., 33.
[4] Ibid., 37.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

“Let’s Hear It for Grandmothers!” - October 2, 2016

II Timothy 1:1-14

            During the long, dark years of the Soviet Union, when for decades the Communist government both actively and passively tried to undermine and destroy religion in general, whether Christianity or Judaism or Islam, the Christian faith was kept alive not so much by the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church, but by people who were referred to openly as “the babushkas”, the grandmothers. 

            Walter Rogers, who was ABC’s correspondent in Moscow from 1984-1989, when the Soviet Union was unraveling, was able to see the situation in many of its aspects: the contempt with which they were held by officialdom, the sacrifices that they made for seventy-four years, the dangers and discrimination that they faced, and the effect that their heroic stubbornness had – more on their grandchildren than on their children.  In 2011, he wrote:
“The babushkas devotedly stood guard over decaying churches, lighting candles amid the dilapidation and ruin. These spiritual sentinels were virtually helpless to prevent decades of Soviet looting of their churches. But the babushkas refused to allow the flame of faith to go out in Russia, even if it was only their own.
In the worst of times, Stalin’s thugs dynamited spectacular Orthodox cathedrals. They sent the Russian clergy to the gulags; they discriminated against believers in hiring and education; and they stole the churches’ priceless religious icons, selling them in the West for precious hard currency.
All the while, the impoverished babushkas eked out an existence living on a few kopecks and handfuls of lard as they scurried in the shadows of their darkened churches, doing their best to protect and police these shrines, demanding dignity and decorum from all who entered.
The babushkas’ critical role outside their churches was at least as central to Russian society as their role in preserving religious ritual. With Soviet mothers working at full-time jobs, it was these grandmothers who raised generations of Russian children, teaching them whatever morality and ethics they could because the Communists had dismantled the traditional rudder of societal morality, the churches.”[1]

          I can only imagine what must have passed through the minds and stirred in the hearts of such women when they heard the words of II Timothy:

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.  [II Timothy 1:5]

In a way, they were continuing a tradition that stretches back to the days of the apostles.  They were, themselves, apostles of the faith no less than Peter or Paul and, in fact, Paul himself recognizes that his work for Christ built on the strong foundations that were laid by Lois and Eunice long before he came onto the scene, just like thousands of unrecognized Tatyanas and Natashas and Olgas were to do two thousand years later; just like thousands of their counterparts around the world do every single day.

          And, while I’m at it here, let me say that grandfathers often do the same thing in their own way.  It’s just that Paul mentions these two women at a time when the leadership of women in any sense was, to many, unimaginable. 

          This past week I picked up a book for the church library.  It’s called The Power of a Praying Grandparent.  Parts of it are kind of cheesy, to tell you the truth, but it is right on target in recognizing how a good grandparent can be central to the spiritual development of a child and the prayers that the author records for grandparents’ use are well worth taking as a model for others.  Even in our situation, where there is no organized suppression of religion the way there was in the Soviet Union, parents are often up against a lot, and the grandparents often become the default support system for meeting the family’s spiritual, as well as physical, needs.  She points out that

“…the process of bringing forth and raising children is exhausting.  The sleep factor – or lack thereof – complicates things when parents are trying not to neglect their spouse and marriage.  This can seem like an overwhelming task.  If one spouse is not even in the picture – for whatever reason – and the parent raising the child is a single mom or dad, the worry factor goes up greatly.  A single mom or dad may be the only one in charge of the rent, mortgage, food, clothing, medical care, schooling, and every other need of the child or children.  Without having the emotional support of someone to share the duties of being a good parent, the responsibility can seem impossible.

As grandparents, we usually don’t fully carry the same burdens the way a parent does, although these things concern us greatly.  That is, unless the child is not only laid in our lap, but also the total responsibility for our grandchild is laid entirely on our shoulders because the parent or parents cannot care for their daughter or son.  Many grandparents experience that.”[2]

When it comes to raising children, parents may be the Marines but the grandparents are the Reserves and the National Guard.  One weekend a month and one week every summer keep things going.

          It can be difficult in its way, too, because the grandparents often don’t get to see how everything turns out for the grandchildren in the long run.  Age or illness may take them out of the picture at just the time when the grandchildren they have nurtured are at an age where they are making their mistakes or getting things right.  Again, hear the words of II Timothy:

“I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” [II Timothy 1:6-7]

That word, “rekindle”, says not to give up on future generations or, if you fit the calling, your mission to them, but to recognize that even if it looks like things may be going awry, that when the spark of faith has been present in someone’s life the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, can blow it into an open flame to give light in the darkness and warmth in a cold world.  That spark may come from people who may not live to realize how long it can smolder before blazing up but whose faith is real faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”. [Hebrews 11:1]

          Of course, it’s even better when they’re still around to see it, and just happen to have brought marshmallows.

[2] Stormie Omartian, The Power of a Praying Grandparent (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2016), 10-11.