Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ross Erb: If you can comprehend it, it's not God

“In God’s household, we are prepared for resistance”
Deut. 6:4-15; John 6:56-69; Ephesians 6:10-20

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Today was the 13th time that I have had the privilege,
at the beginning of a new school year,
of marking milestones for children from this congregation.
It has also been my privilege to participate in parent/child dedications,
graduations, and baptisms.
I have gone on 8 service or learning/service trips with youth,
and taken youth to 6 Mennonite Church USA youth conventions,
13 conference middle school retreats,
and 12 of our own youth group retreats.
I had very little grey hair
when I began this string of activities I just listed!

I have watched our children perform Christmas musicals
that have consistently brought tears of joy to my eyes
and deepened my experience of the season.
For 13 years I have been witness to adults
who have invested their time, creativity, and love
into teaching and relating to our children and youth.
I have found myself in awe of persons
who have pulled together Vacation Bible Schools with Bob the Tomato
and Larry the Cucumber,
or planned Camp Kiva out at Highland Retreat.

When I began here as an Associate Pastor,
I was a stranger to this congregation.
It was the children who first helped me feel at ease.
Children accepted me as their pastor
long before I could accept myself in that role.
Eventually I stopped feeling like a fraud
when someone referred to me as Pastor Ross.
That is a gift that you all have given me,
the time to grow into a role that was new for me.

This milestone recognition at the beginning of each school year
is a tradition that helps our children grow into new roles as well.
In addition to marking the academic
and intellectual development of our children,
we are also laying out our hopes for their spiritual development.
They are more actively learning about their place with God;
increasingly taking responsibility for their faith.
Moving from a story Bible that parents read to them
to a study Bible that they need to dig into for themselves,
we give books to our children for a purpose.
We want our children to grow up knowing and loving the Bible,
because we see it as a path toward knowing and loving God.
This is us, acting on the wisdom of Deuteronomy 6.
This is us, saying that we don’t know where else to turn except to Jesus,
the One who has the words of eternal life!

Over the years, we, as a congregation,
have invited our children and youth
to see themselves as God’s beloved children.
We want to walk alongside
as they enter into a growing relationship with God,
as a disciple of Jesus Christ,
rooted in this loving slice of the Body of Christ.
We do this even as we are on our own journey of discovery with God.
We can’t help but be on this journey,
because God is bigger than we can hope to understand in our lifetime.
As St. Augustine said, “If you comprehend it, it is not God.”
So we all go “back to school” each year.

Whether we are a child or a great-grandparent,
we are all seeking to know more about God.
Adults gather to study the Bible and to engage in spiritual friendships.
We participate in Sunday School classes and small group discussions.
 Together we uncover different facets of God,
different aspects of our lives as disciples of Jesus.
Children and youth ask questions and stop us in our tracks,
pushing us in our understandings of what we believe.
To answer a child’s question about God
we often have to change our language.
We drop our pat answers and need to think.
What exactly does that passage of scripture mean?
How do we understand this event in our lives?
Those of you who have taught children’s Sunday School, I would guess,
have learned as much as the children you were teaching.
You have learned from preparing Bible lessons.
You have learned from observing the joy
that children bring to their faith.
Your own perspective on faith may have become a bit lighter,
a bit more joy-filled.

We have celebrated our children and youth.
We have watched them develop a faith of their own.
Some of our youth have shown leadership skills,
and have expressed an interest in exploring ministry.
We rejoice when we see that!

But sometimes our children seem to have rejected faith,
or have at least rejected the church.
I know that is a cause for concern for all of us.
Many youth seem to graduate from high school
and then disappear from congregational life.
In fact, research in the US would indicate that roughly half of all youth
drift away from God and from the church after graduation.
It may seem like this is inevitable.
We worry about it,
but we feel powerless to change this statistic.

On this “Back to School Sunday”
I want to share with you a bit of my understanding.
How can we best work toward giving our children
a faith that will stick with them beyond high school?
Perhaps the one word that sums up what I believe is ‘relationship’.

According to research by the Fuller Youth Institute in California,
children and youth are much more likely to remain engaged with faith
if they have at least 5 adults in their congregation
with whom they have a connection. 
Having adults who are praying for the youth by name,
who show up to watch them play sports
or perform in plays or choirs,
makes a huge difference to youth.
As this congregation moves forward,
I hope that our youth have multiple people
who have been involved in their lives as teachers, mentors, and friends.
I want our youth to know that they have a team
that is working with them as they grow in faith.

Because we take this task of forming faith seriously,
adults should be wanting to find ways
to be involved with children and youth.
In addition to being involved in programming,
adults should be talking to children and youth
as they see them around the church.
Talk to the parents of children and make connections that way.

As we adults develop relationships with them,
remember to be genuine with children and youth.
Don’t be afraid of hard topics.
Don’t be afraid to admit if you don’t know the answer
to a question a child asks.
Join with children in exploring.
What does the Bible say?
What might Jesus do?
Let’s ask this person what they think.

Above all, don’t underestimate our children.
You can expect that they will have some of the same questions you have.
They will be interested in exploring what you are interested in.
If you wonder something about God,
if you wonder why we do something in church,
or don’t do something,
you can be assured that children wonder about it as well.

We adults have doubts and questions when it comes to faith.
Our children and youth do too!
Once they reach middle and high school,
it is so much fun to watch youth wrestle with what they believe.
They are much more likely to stick with faith
if we help them come to their own beliefs
instead of having adults tell them what to believe.
It is likely that their beliefs will differ slightly from ours.
Trust that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit,
will guide their understandings,
just as we trust God to guide ours.

One of my greatest frustrations
is the tendency we adults have
to assume that youth need special programming
to be able to learn about, or worship, God.
At Mennonite Church U.S.A’s youth convention this summer,
I was very disappointed at how youth worship felt “dumbed down”.
The speakers were excellent,
but I felt that worship was geared to entertain
with a “shock and awe” approach.
There was no mention of the very significant conversations
taking place in the adult delegate sessions.
Our youth knew that the conversations were happening,
but the divide between adults and youth made it very clear
that youth were “the church of the future”, not the church today.
Our youth may not have wanted to sit through all of the discussions,
but they are interested,
and they would have liked some way of connecting.
In Harrisburg at Mennonite World Conference,
some of our youth went to the youth activities on the first day
and were told that adults were having ‘adult’ conversations
while the youth would have fun!
Would it surprise you to know that our youth
chose to stay away from the youth activities from then on?
They wanted to be involved in what the adults were doing!

In God’s household,
we teach our children to know and love God.
From an early age we begin to give them the armor of God
to help them to stand against the devil’s schemes.
We do that by pointing them to the Bible,
to the One who has the words of eternal life.
We do that by walking along with them, sharing the journey.

Poet Edgar Guest wrote,
“I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.”
I have faith in our children and youth,
who, in relationship with loving adults and guided by the Holy Spirit,
can seek to know that which we cannot comprehend.

5 weeks from now I will end my role with this congregation.
I will no longer be Pastor Ross.
I will miss being in that role.
I will miss the opportunity to be so closely involved
in the spiritual care and nurture
of the amazing children and youth of this congregation.
I will miss sharing that task with parents and other caring adults. 
And I am confident that God
will continue shape you into God’s household.
The work will go on.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is the work of God’s people of all ages.
Thanks be to God. 

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