Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Friday, July 6, 2012

What You Do Forms The Lesson

"Teach my kids about God?" exclaimed the mother, "That's what we need the church for!"  "We wouldn't know where to begin,” added the father.

The parents were earnest, sincere members of my congregation, and absolutely buffaloed at the idea of trying to give their children a solid grounding in the faith that obviously meant a great deal to them.  In this age of specialists, they felt inadequate, and wanted to hand the job over to people they hoped were experts.  Their outlook was not unique, or even unusual.  They honestly believed that this was not something for amateurs, and it was our job as a church to provide the right people for the job. 

In response, I could have cited the solid mass of data that contradicts their assumptions.  Study after study, across denominational lines, and geographic regions attests that most people form their disposition toward faith, and toward church or synagogue not by what they learn in Sunday or Sabbath school, not by the words of ordained ministers, but by the behavior of their parents or other responsible caregivers.  Parents, who drop the kids off for Sunday school and then go home, tend to raise kids who do the same with their own children.  Parents, who are actively engaged in the life of a congregation, tend to raise children who go on to do the same. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but the overall pattern is clear.  I could have described all that research to the couple, but instead I told them a story.

When I was about ten I developed a lump just beneath my left eye.  It grew quite rapidly, and began to affect my vision.  When the doctor examined it he told me it was a sebaceous cyst and would have to be removed.  Further, he said, because it was so close to the eye, I would have to be awake and cooperate by holding my eyelid gently shut and not moving a muscle.

The whole thing sounded frightening, and even though the doctor was a trusted family friend, I wondered what would happen if his hand slipped, or if I failed to stay still.

I remember feeling petrified on the morning of the operation, as my father drove me to the hospital.  We were directed to a waiting room, where we settled in until it was time for the surgery.  My father looked at me and commented that I seemed quite nervous.  I admitted that I was, and he said in a matter-of-fact way, “Then let's ask God to help you do what you have to this morning, and to help Dr. Emery too.”  We bowed our heads, and he offered a simple prayer for courage, strength and the success of the operation.  Presently the doctor arrived, my father gave me a hug and said, “Just remember, if you get nervous, ask God to help, and I'll do the same while I wait.”

I remember the rest of that morning very clearly.  The terror was gone, and I was calm.  I held my eye still, and I was surprised how fast it all went.

My folks took religion seriously in the way many parents did in the nineteen fifties.  When my brother and I were little, one of them would hear our prayers every night at bedtime. They made sure we went to Sunday school, while they went to church, and for several years my father taught my class.  On the other hand, they did not talk about faith very often, and they did not offer a regular grace at meals, reserving it for special occasions: birthdays, or Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Perhaps that was part of why my father's simple act of praying out loud with me the morning of my operation had an enormous effect.  More than anything I learned in Sunday school, it taught me that prayer was important, and was for “real life,” for the serious stuff.  That morning made enough of an impression that in the years of adolescence that followed, years when I flirted openly with agnosticism, I never gave up praying.  And when the crisis of my mother's terminal illness struck, it was the memory of that prayer for courage that reminded me of the presence of a loving God who would walk with me through the experience of grief and loss.

Over the years I have shared this story with parishioners and friends for a simple reason: it was the quiet, unselfconscious act of my father that provided the single most important Christian education lesson of my life.  I don't know if he realized the importance of what he did, and for years I surely did not, but today this incident undergirds my contention that what we do as parents is crucial to the faith formation of our children and grandchildren.

This is not to downplay the importance of Sunday school.  We need better programs than ever to counteract the relentless message of functional atheism dished up by the society around us.  The last thing any church should downgrade is its Christian education ministry.  But even the finest church programs will work best when parents are personally involved.  Children seeing their parents participating regularly in worship, hearing prayers in the evening, offering grace at meals, and speaking openly of their personal faith lays a strong foundation that can then be reinforced by excellent class experiences.  Providing the environment in which those lessons make sense is our job in whatever church we find ourselves.  The combined ministry of church working in partnership with vitally concerned parents is the primary means by which we, as the Body of Christ, pass on the Christian Faith to the next generation.

Howard MacMullen
© July, 2012

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