Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?

Heroes of the faith r1

Several years ago I met with a woman distraught over her son’s rejection of Christianity.

She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.”

She wondered why he had rejected Christianity.

I wondered why it took him so long.

The Pig in London and the Lamb in Israel

When I was twenty years old, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but as a college student I could barely afford ramen noodles. I found work on a communal farm in Israel. For a bit of manual labor, they provided me food, a room, ten dollars a month, and a pack of cigarettes a day. (It was the cigarettes that sold me.)

The weekend before I departed, I heard my first talk ever on being a man. On the way to Israel, I stopped in London to visit some friends. With the talk on manliness ringing in my ear, I swaggered, spat, and unsuccessfully tried to play the man.

During a two-hour dinner party in London, I was introduced to a young woman who promptly deemed me shallow, insincere, and stupid. (I skipped dessert so I could quit while I was ahead.)

A few years later she married a friend of mine, but her opinion of me was chiseled in stone. I once loaned her husband ten thousand dollars; and she suspected me of manipulation. But if I forgot to send him a birthday card, she felt my true colors were revealed.

To her, I was a jerk. And everything I did or said reinforced her judgment.

The Curse of Conformity

In 1983 I landed my first job in the computer industry. I applied for an open position, sent in my resume, endured a few interviews, and attended one final meeting.

In that meeting, my soon-to-be boss said, “I have chosen you for the position, but let me explain why:”

  • I didn’t choose you because of your education” (I had studied 17th Century European Intellectual History, not exactly Computer Science);
  • And I didn’t choose you because your grades were better” (when I say I “studied history” I don’t mean to imply I studied real hard);
  • And I didn’t choose you because of your great business experience” (three years of mission work didn’t qualify as a practical MBA).

His care for my self-esteem was underwhelming; I began to wonder if the job was really mine.

He continued, “I chose you because you answered my questions differently than I would have. I didn’t agree with every answer, but your answers gave me an outlook I hadn’t considered. I don’t need more people who think like me—I already think like me—I need people who offer different perspectives.” He concluded,

“The curse of the computer industry is conformity; never lose your non-conformity.”

We Are Strangers in a Strange Land

My wife’s ninety-year-old mother died last Thursday and we mourn. Someone reminded me that when we grieve, “we do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

I grew up in a family that camped. My father was a pastor who got four weeks of vacation. We took all four weeks at once, camping the whole month of July, mostly in wooded campsites next to windy lakes. We strapped our small Sunfish sailboat on top of our sagging station wagon.

Williamson Family Vacation, July 1968

Those vacations were a young boy’s fantasy, filled with mysterious forests and stormy seas. Four weeks wasn’t enough. We hauled our home wherever we went. It was often hot, but sometimes cold, and occasionally rainy. The car always broke down. And I loved it.

I recently heard a quote from the Epistle to Diognetus that resurfaced all those old memories,

The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life…

For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.

Invitations to Intimacy with God

Most Sundays after church, my father invited us kids to critique his sermon. He disliked “Atta-boys” and he loathed a “Nice job!” He loved to observe how we thought and what we saw.

He delighted—really delighted—when we said things like:

  • I think your illustration of the boy on a bike didn’t explain predestination well;
  • I wonder if your second point should have come first, and your third point eliminated;
  • I think the best part of your sermon was the final, “Amen.”

His partly wanted to ensure we listened to his sermons, sure; but even more, he genuinely wanted to engage with us at a heart level by hearing what we thought. Dad encouraged honesty and offered no repercussions when we criticized, disagreed, or misunderstood.

It was my dad’s way of inviting us up into his life.

Do We Practice Godless Faith?

I recently met an elder whose faith brought him great distress. Three years ago, his small but growing church received tithes that exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, for the first time ever. But this is the rest of the story.

After seeking God, the pastor, elders, and deacons collectively felt led to invest in their youth. In faith, they unanimously decided to increase their 2014 budget by thirty-five thousand dollars to hire a youth leader. But the next year’s donations only increased by a thousand.

The following year they again they sought God, and again in faith set a budget with the extra thirty-five thousand dollars. But giving increased by only two thousand. Last year, in faith they repeated the process, and last year’s offerings decreased by three thousand.

I met that elder a week after the board saw last year’s final numbers. He said, “I have never had so much faith in my life. The entire board had faith. Jesus said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move an entire mountain.”

“Well, we had faith the size of the Mt. Everest, and we couldn’t move a molehill.”

Gazing on Beauty

Most of my life I failed to appreciate beauty. Oh, I loved the look of sails on the sea and snow on the mountains, but mostly I liked sailing those sailboats and skiing those slopes.

Fifteen years ago, I learned to scuba dive. On our first dive, my sons and I wobbled our way to the sea in unwieldly gear, inserted our mouthpieces, lowered our heads beneath the waves, and dived. In fifteen feet of water, we entered a cloud of thousands of small yellow and white, black-striped fish. We could see nothing but a beautiful gallery of sparkling fish.

And the beauty of their colors, and the shimmer of their glory, delighted and enthralled me.

Yesterday I joined two friends to talk with a woman about her calling. And she talked only of beauty. She shared the glory of seeing a sunrise, and sparks of hope in the cracks of a frozen harbor, and satisfaction in a sunset-pond. And she spoke of the healing wholeness of beauty.

Hearing her reminded me of the first time I was captivated by beauty.

This morning I read Psalm 27 as part of my Scripture meditation. When I read verse 4, something again was awakened:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
… to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord….

And I wondered, “What the heck does it mean to gaze on the beauty of God?