Your hand, at some point in life--hopefully--has been a guiding hand to someone.
Definitely if there are children in your life. Or young (perhaps I should say, younger) believers who look up to you as a mentor.
Reading Matthew 18:1-10 with Search the Scriptures made me see, for the first time, that our attitude and duty towards young children are similar to those towards young believers. In a sense, you could call them mentoring relationships--friendship based on a tacit understanding that one learns and is guided by the other. Friendships with a great capability for mostly one-sided influence.
How loving Christ's words are in this chapter, and how piercingly aware of the condescension, pride, and carelessness that can warp such mentoring relationships, making them more destructive than nurturing.
Studying Christ's words was a reminder to:
1. Be humble in accepting, appreciating, and learning from them (v 4-5, 10)
Humbly learn from them--the childlike spirit of trustfulness, which is so easily patronised as naivety, is really something incredibly rare, and a great honour to have, in contrast to the cynicism that being street-smart cultivates.
Don't abuse or despise it. No matter how silly it is, don't make them feel foolish for being confiding. No matter how trivial their secret is--or how great a joke it would make--don't betray their trust, or treat it lightly.
(I'm still learning this! I'm afraid my sense of humour is not always very helpful...)
For younger believers--don't feel supercilious over their eagerness, energy, and exuberance. Rejoice with them! And instead of seeing it as an instance of their immaturity, (as we generally do with eager-beavers in any other field) humbly recognize it as a reminder of how far you have fallen away from your first love.
And these are just two of the most obvious areas.
2. Give them respect. See them as individuals. (v10; note the repetition of 'one of' in v 5 and 10!)
As a mentor, respect may not be the first thing you think of giving to your--how shall I say this? mentoree?
And all the more so, we mustn't neglect it.
This could be something as simple as listening, a lesson that could take a whole lifetime to learn.
In William Deresiewicz's book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, he describes what he learnt from reading Mansfield Park--the importance of listening in a friendship:
"Austen...knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else's stories--entering into their feelings, validating their experiences--is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness."
This, in my experience of working with children, is entirely and wholly true. You'd be surprised; kids don't actually want you to entertain them so much as they want you just to listen to them. Not just with the engrossed grown-up's spasmodic 'Umm' and 'Really?' but with the same respect, interest, and engagement you would give to another adult.
Even if you're dying to laugh.
3. Be purposeful in loving, guiding, and caring for them. Take your mentorship and relationship with them seriously, just as you would take serving the Lord in more glamorous or 'grown-up' ways. (v 5) You may only have these three kids to teach every Sunday, or that one teenager who confides in you. You are no less significant (and probably more) to them, than if you had twenty.
And as Christ so clearly warns, be careful we do not cause them to stumble. (v 6) As teachers, mentors, and friends, we have been given a great trust.
I need to keep in mind how receptive children are to your approval and criticism, once you have won their love and friendship. A careless comment or impatient remark can make a much bigger impact than you would think on a child who loves and looks up to you.
Similarly, in your relationship to a younger Christian. Be especially careful of imposing your opinions! Having--sadly--done this before with children, I daren't think of the consequences this could have on a spiritual level.
Oh dear, how depressing this is! someone may be saying at this point. All these warnings, as if I needed any more to think and worry about, when I'm just struggling with the time and effort costs of friendship!
Yes, we fall short most of the time. We make mistakes.
But as Jerry and Mary White's book, To Be a Friend, (a helpful and insightful guide on friendship!) notes,
'We can only do this when our lives are being transformed by God.'
And as another comfort to us discouraged souls--God intends friendship to be a two-way blessing.
Even mentoring friendships.
'We gain and we give. We gain what we do not expect or deserve. We give what cannot be bought.'
(To Be a Friend, by Jerry and Mary White)
Virtual communication has superseded verbal communication today, in a similar way to how communicating with God has evolved.
We talk about God more than we talk to Him. Technology gives us access to many good articles, websites, and e-sources to help us in our relationship with Him. Our lack of time, however, makes it easier for us to focus on these rather than on the relationship itself. After all--and I'm guilty of this!--it only takes so long to read an article. Five minutes or less is enough for the average article nowadays. In one click and a few rapid scrolls we can get an espresso shot of insight and wisdom, and feel that we've 'done something about our spiritual life' for the day. As a healthy marriage requires time with each other, rather than individual studies of even the most helpful marriage counselling books, we need to change this mentality.
(On a side note--yes, I'm aware how ironical this blog post is!)
One of the most important and most neglected ways to 'grow spiritually' is prayer.
In today's fast-paced lifestyle, the mere idea of sitting still, keeping your eyes closed, or your hands clasped, seems agonizingly stagnant and static. Even though there are so many ways we can incorporate prayer into our schedule; on the treadmill, on the road, on the bus, (amen to that!) in the kitchen, over the sink...all the same, prayer is something most of us know we regularly neglect everyday.
Ironically, one of the biggest reasons for this neglect--besides the delusion that it requires a solid block of unfettered time where we can sit in perfect hermit-like isolation, cool and cross-legged a la a yoga advertisement--is that there are so many things to pray about. It overwhelms us, especially when we feel we've only got five minutes to pray.
How can we possibly squeeze everything into five minutes?? We can't! Let's just avoid the whole issue and settle for a brief superficial Dear Lord, thank You for everything please help me to do everything I have to do today and keep me close to You Amen.
If we had an empty morning to ourselves, preferably on an isolated mountain top with lots of green and perhaps a waterfall or two in the background, ah, then we could really pray, we tell ourselves.
But since we don't--and it seems quite likely we never will--we need to have a sense of structure in our prayer.
Don't misunderstand me.
Prayer should be, ideally, spontaneous and natural and uninhibited. When someone first suggested that I keep a prayer schedule, I was outraged. Perhaps with an instinctive knowledge of my go-getter, list-maker mentality, it seemed to me like a death blow to the ideal of prayer itself. Mechanized, automated, so horribly and meaninglessly structured. You might as well tell me to plan how to start loving someone. I had a very Dickensian reaction to this seemingly Gradgrindian proposal.
But having started from that extreme, I've since changed my mind. In the constant struggle to maintain prayer in the 21st century lifestyle, I feel that a schedule of some sort is important in making any progress, or enabling any perseverance in prayer.
Based on your context, lifestyle, personality, and even prayer items, your prayer schedule will, and should, vary. Some people have incredibly organized and precise schedules that specify what day, what topic, what particular request. Others have a much more flexible approach, more like a basic format of organization. Wary of my personality's bent, I'm trying to keep to this, encouraging prayer time to remain spontaneous and natural instead of becoming a list of boxes to be ticked.
Even at such a simple level, this has helped me so much, I would like to share it here. It may be a very obvious idea to some of you, probably more mature Christians who have experience and wisdom. But, remembering how only a few years ago this was something I had to learn through sheer trial and error (I've been through both extremes of the hyper-organized and the hyper-flexible approach to prayer), I hope it will be helpful to some, at least, who want to do something about prayer but don't know how, short of a major restructuring of their lives. (and if you don't have time to pray as much or as well as you would like, I'm guessing you probably don't have the time for that either.)
My prayer journal is a notebook I throw into my schoolbag on weekdays, and reinstall on my shelf on the weekend. It undergoes quite a lot of wear and tear from being fished out and chucked back so many times on the bus, on the way to classes. (Note to self: invest in a hardier notebook, or else a real leather book cover for protection. From the current state of my prayer journal I'm soon going to have to deal with bits of flaking grey synthetic leather. Ugh.) You could always do a high-tech equivalent on your phone, I'm sure--but keep in mind how easy it is to get distracted by social media notifications, emails, or texts.
Every now and then--annually at the least, or else whenever I feel it's no longer relevant--I take time to reorganize my prayer schedule.
There are several items that don't change: Myself. Family. My church. Friends. Specific people I'm praying for. Salvation for certain people. Missionaries, leaders, world events.
Recently I've taken to organizing them a little differently, into Salvation (unbelievers), Spiritual Life (Christians), Prayer Requests (people I'm praying for), Me--in the roles and life You've given me, and as Your child. There is a special one for thanksgiving as well, to remember answered prayer.
You may not use the same format, of course. I suggest though, the simpler the better, especially when you first start.
What I like about this method is that you choose whatever category you feel most drawn to pray for that day--it formats all those prayer items into manageable 'servings', so you don't feel overwhelmed, or guilty for forgetting to pray for that person you said you would. (aha! we've all been there, haven't we?) Most of all, it gives you what I call 'largeness of mind' (aka mental space) which is more tied up with heart space (the 'largeness of heart' that the Bible often talks about) than we often realize. When our minds are full of what we haven't done and what we need to do, we feel overwhelmed and unable to care for anything or anyone beyond our immediate circumstances. I don't even have time to pray for the salvation of my family, or for my spiritual life. Let alone Syrian refugees or that lonely girl people whisper about. Mentally, we feel harassed and frustrated and overwhelmed--and our hearts close up simultaneously...
And God, knowing this, calls us to lay our burdens on Him--through prayer. Ironically, what a vicious cycle we sometimes make of this...
Psalm 119:32 ...For You shall enlarge my heart.
As a second gen Christian, I think I can say I've had a personal experience of the pitfalls kids from Christian homes face, or what I would term the spiritual dangers of being 'Christianized'.
Having said that, mine was even the type of church where conversion and baptism were taken very seriously--no Sinner's Prayer magic formula you could say when you were seven, or post-camp spiritual high.
And yet, after years of Sunday School and church, obeying your parents, praying (and having a legitimate, if somewhat shallow relationship with God), behaving kindly, memorizing Bible verses...the lines blur. To yourself, more than to others. You aren't actually a Christian, but you're very good at looking like one.
I'm not saying that growing up in a Christian home inevitably leads to hypocrisy, though it certainly is a possibility. But I believe that more often, the problem isn't sincerity or hypocrisy. You do believe, you do accept, on the same simple level you had since childhood. To make it more complicated, you do actually want it to be more than just that; you (vaguely) want to 'be a real Christian.'
Meanwhile, you continue to do all the right things and after the hundredth gospel service you stop thinking of yourself when the pastor reaches the application at the end. Oh yeah, I know that stuff.
You've been Christianized.
First big danger of being Christianized: It stops you from seeing your sin, and from recognizing that you need to be saved from it. Especially for kids who are born with a sort of instinctive good nature/high tolerance, or have been blessed with lives that contain comparatively little conflict to challenge them, a Christian upbringing or at least obedience to Christian parents can be an additional stumbling block in recognizing your sin, and your urgent need for help. It creates a deceptive facade that tricks you as well as others--until something happens to shake the mask off. Like Nellie's description of Catherine's temper in Wuthering Heights, gunpowder doesn't explode if fire is kept away from it, but it is still gunpowder nonetheless; only waiting to be set off. Being Christianized is like another layer of sand hiding the gunpowder of sin in our souls.
All those times when people tell you how well behaved you are, 'how well you've turned out.' (another reason for my deep-rooted dislike of that phrase; as if parents can follow a formula and produce model children!) Your good kid image and all those years in church, all the Bible verses and theology you can spout, don't make you more of a Christian than the visitor who doesn't know who Abraham is. A sinner who has heard the Gospel a million times is still--a sinner. Having medicine in your home doesn't mean you're not sick.
I've shared before in my testimony how this 'good kid blindfold' snared me for years; I simply could not say with honest conviction, I have sinned. The words rang hollow even in my own ears. I quote Ray Hartsfield, I think for the second time on this blog: 'Every man faces a day when guilt transforms from an abstract concept to a soul-crippling infection.'
Being Christianized often makes that transformation harder.
A second big danger of being Christianized: failing to differentiate between what applies to Christians and what applies to nonbelievers; and getting frustrated, and stumbled, as result.
For every sort of society, conformity gets you acceptance. Speak the way we do. Join in our activities. Don't do that--do this--and you'll be one of us.
However, the church is not a society. Should not be a society. Unbelievers are accepted with love into the church family, but to be 'one of us' in the sense of one of Christ's children, a Christian--mere conformity isn't enough. Should not be enough.
There are so many passages in the Bible that become frighteningly, disturbingly works/appearance-oriented once we take them out of the context of the professing Christians they're addressed to, and plop them down in sweeping application to the whole Bible study group--whether you're seeking, whether you're professing, whether you're just sitting in this room because your parents brought you along, THOU SHALL EVANGELIZE TO THY NON-CHRISTIAN FRIENDS because that's what the Bible calls Christians to do. (for example)
No issue with that. But perhaps you need to look at your class and see each one as having an individual relationship with God, varying from one to another, even if you've had the same class for the last three years. What kind of ambassador has never actually been in the country they profess to represent, and aren't even citizens?
Professing Christians have a personal relationship and commitment as their impetus to obey such commands in the Bible, instead of the Christianized's sincere but vague sense that this is right and everyone approves of it. Doing so only further Christianizes yourself, distancing yourself from the real thing because you deceptively seem to be 'doing it all already.' The kids who have been faithfully coming to Sunday School, the kids who text you things like 'I'm praying for you' and 'Trust God', but whose faith doesn't go deeper than obedient, dutiful, or even sincere--these kids are most in danger from the opiate of cultural conformity; conformity to the culture of the church.
And then, when they've been doing, and doing, and doing--dutifully, sincerely, patiently doing--there seems to be so much to do, when there's so little you get in return; and after a while, you get burnt out. Frustrated. What's the point of doing all this?
What's the point, indeed, when it's being done for its own sake and nothing more?
A third big danger of being Christianized--and this also applies to second gen Christians like myself, even after coming to a personal conversion: it's easy to mistake family culture issues for moral issues.
Let's have a very, very simple example, one that won't be sensitive or misleading to (almost) anyone. (sigh)
When I was really small, and my church was really small, and almost all the children in the church at that point were really small, we were all homeschooled--that is, our parents didn't send us to kindergartens. So, without my mom or dad telling me anything on this, I assumed in my small mind that being a Christian meant you were homeschooled. (I'm aware there are people who do hold this assumption, but I think most of the people reading this wouldn't think so.) And so when another small friend told me very proudly that he was going to go to Primary 1, I was aghast. 'You mean you're not going to come to church anymore??'
Family culture. Not a moral issue.
How one family decides to keep the Sabbath in practical and specific detail, obviously differs from another, based on background, lifestyle, even economic differences. One family, maybe, tries not to buy things on Sunday. But another eats out so Mom can get a much-needed rest from cooking, and they have time to fellowship with others. I was brought up keeping Sunday as a day where we don't touch homework (depending on what age you are, the idea will produce either a cheer or a groan). That, though, is an aspect of my family culture, and doesn't make us more righteous than another Christian family who does do homework on Sundays. But when you've grown up doing something, and the people around you take it for granted as well, it becomes too easy to make something small like this into a moral issue when we meet people who don't do what we do. Merely because we're so used to it, it seems weird that other people aren't. And that, obviously, is a bad reason.
I was reluctant to include the second example of keeping the Sabbath, above, because I'm aware what a sensitive topic it can be to some people, not just between families in the same church, but between churches as well. You may not agree with my classification of keeping the Sabbath under family culture, and perhaps it isn't, in your context; (maybe it comes up in the top five on your church covenant) but this definitely applies to many things. Things which we need to wake up and see for what they are: just things we're used to doing--or not doing--or doing in a certain way--and don't necessarily reflect a moral judgement on others who are different.
I don't pretend to be an expert on this. What little I've written is simply based on my personal experience and having watched others like myself struggle with the same issues. That, along with conviction that these are real concerns, is all. No masters in psychology or theology. No parenting or counselling experience either. Perhaps I shouldn't have written quite so much--thrown in a few more qualifications or disclaimers...
But having said so much, I want to qualify what may otherwise seem to some people as a rant against the hypocrisy, external-oriented if subversive pressure that Christian family culture imposes on nonChristian children (observe the vocabulary of literary analysis essays! The combination just lacks ideology, sexually repressed, and bourgeois.)
There are many, many benefits in growing up in a Christian family. So much so that they more than balance these few dangers listed here. I may have stumbled in a few small ways in my spiritual journey, but overall my Christian background has been something I am very grateful to God for, and to which I largely owe whatever little spiritual maturity I have. Perhaps I should--just to silence the mouths out there who might extrapolate--write a counterbalancing post on the blessings of being a second gen Christian, and all would be well...
Humour aside, it is simply a reminder to me that again, grace is everything. The best intentions, the 'most Christian' family background, aren't a formula to 'turn out' (ugghhh) scintillatingly spiritual Christians.
In the bleakest and bitterest hearts, God works. In the complaisant and yes, even the Christianized, God works too.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are