Monday, 29 May 2017

Let the little children come to me!

Recently I sat in a Church service and the children were brought to the front to have a “children's talk.” Today the pastor was teaching on "let the children come to me for such is the kingdom of God.” 

My husband leans over to me and says, “They are speaking your language,” while looking at me with the smile that says, “see, this is not that bad.”  While I honour their intent, it was one of the most difficult things I have endured for a long time.  

Let me try to relive this for you…..

The children sit on the stage looking at the adults. There is a glass window behind them with Jesus holding his hands out drawing all His children unto Him. 

The talk begins for the kids and the adults are watching the kids who are now on show for all.  I see many adults begin to look at their watch or read their bulletin to pass the time while the “Children's talk” is on. The children are sitting very still and look a little uncomfortable as they are staring out at a whole lot of adults. The leader is lovely and tries to talk to them, to engage them and tell them how Jesus never told the children to go away and that he said we ALL needed to become like children to enter the kingdom.  The kids are quiet and still and the teacher is having trouble getting them to respond.  A whole lot of adults looking at you, can be scary. When one child finally does answer in a natural way, there was a laugh that rang through the congregation because her     answer was “so cute.” 

This caused the children to shut down even more,  but to be fair,  I was aware of the love and warmth that was evident in the room despite the strained process that is going on. 

And then after talking about “letting the children come to me, do not turn them away” …the children are asked to leave the room to go to Sunday School. 

Am I the only one in the room who can see the irony in this?

I know in this context, in this traditional setting, it makes sense. It is how “Church” has been done for a long time.  

“One day children were brought to Jesus in the hope that he would lay hands on them and pray over them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus intervened: “Let the children alone, don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these. After laying hands on them, he left.” (Matthew 19:13-15)

This passage is highlighting how the disciples continued to misunderstand Jesus and here I felt I watched it being played out yet again.

The service continues….

Luke18:17 "anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child, will never enter it" 

The Pastor begins to preach on this passage, while the children are elsewhere, taken away so the adults could learn more about being like a child so they can enter the kingdom. (sorry if I sound sarcastic)

He says….. “In the disciples’ minds the children were not important and important people don't hang out with children”

Not sure if anyone else could see the hypocrisy in the room.  Like a “frog in the kettle” here we are sitting in the comfortable, quiet, ordered space, listening to a well-spoken and passionate message, learning that we should be like the children we have just sent away to another room.

The Pastor continues to say, “Jesus says, what the world thinks is important is not what I care about. I care about the powerless and those that are like children. Jesus is constantly going sideways of his culture.”  

The congregation sits in silent agreement.

While I agree, the Pastor is saying that we must value children in this culture, in this setting, but somehow it feels like the actions this morning didn't match what was being said. God sees children as the people they are and He values them. Let them come and do not stop them, Jesus says.  The church should be a place where children are welcomed in and where they meet Jesus, but the cost of that is huge for the Traditional church. 

What are we saying to kids when we send them out? What are we saying to adults if we keep making it comfortable enough for them so they learn and they never have a chance to see what it is like for a child? They never get to learn from kids what it is like to have a “child-like” faith in order to enter the Kingdom when we gather at the church, because we are very rarely together!

He continues on saying, “Camps are great, and a place where kids get to go away and learn about Jesus and then bring it back home”

And while true, I am dying inside, feeling like he gets it, but then doesn’t. It is so wonderful to have a Pastor speaking about children, but what he is saying is only part of the truth. Our language is so tricky. Our western culture is set up to send kids away to learn and encounter Jesus at Camp, Sunday school or Kids Klub, but it is only part of the truth and what we are called to do. 

Then his final challenge to us all 

“Do you talk to them at the coffee break?Is it awkward ? We all feel awkward, but we have to reach out and take time to share the love with kids. It is not easy. It feels like you are all talking a different language. Sometimes it feels like we are watching cats being herded, but that's why we have a children's message, because we want them to know they are welcome. Don’t be the grumpy old church person. Even if it just a smile,  we are put on this earth to lead them and love them.”

This is his final plea to the adults in the room. His great encouragement. At this point, I am really struggling, but I look around the room and everyone is smiling and happy. 

So often the Church is missing the point on so many levels. I suppose we are still like the disciples all these years later…..clueless. I don't know where to start to unpack the experience of that morning, only to say I walked away from that morning feeling sad. 

What does it truly mean to welcome the children? To not hinder them? To love each other as if we are all the children of God? To see the family of God as one big family that needs to learn to love, live and grow together? When we get together as Christians, what did Jesus intend when he said: 

 Let the children alone, don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.” (Matthew 19:13-15)
"anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child, will never enter it” (Luke 18)

We must be challenged to consider what that should look like today if we followed Jesus example? 

Monday, 8 May 2017

A Shepherds Life?

In my Bible reading at the moment, I am up to Amos, Hosea, Joel and Ezekiel. I must admit I have been asking God why these books are in the Bible, they all sound so much like “doom and gloom” and then I look to my own blogs and realise they can often have the same feel. I haven’t posted anything for a while, because everything I seem to write, seems to sound like I am complaining and I don't want to be that kind of person. I asked “google’ why the book of Amos is in the Bible and it guided me to “Chuck Swindoll” (knowing he was known for such positive things, I was excited to read what he had to say).

“Injustice permeates our world, yet as Christians we often turn a blind eye to the suffering of others for “more important” work like praying, preaching, and teaching. But the book of Amos reminds us that those works, while unquestionably central to a believer’s life, ring hollow when we don’t love and serve others in our own lives. Do you find yourself falling into that trap at times—prioritizing prayer, teaching and preaching over service?”

Amos as a simple farmer, that God used to speak out….so maybe I will post my latest blog that I have been holding onto for weeks now…….and trust it is received in the heart I which I intend, to challenge us all to not simply live comfortable lives. 

Driving out in the beautiful Australian countryside I was reminded of the vast expanses of land, all fenced, with sheep standing around eating, surrounded by grass everywhere they turn. Granted, it was very dry and brown, so I’m not sure how tasty it was, but as long as they keep their heads down and eat what is supplied and stay in their fences, they are generally safe and will have what they need. There are no shepherds to be seen. They are busy yes, but not busy staying with the sheep, for if the boundaries are securely in place, the sheep just keep to themselves and generally stay safe and looked after. 

For an Australian farm it seems that having secure fences/boundaries is an important key. I wouldn’t know this except that I have watched "McLeods’ Daughters" three times completely through the whole 8 seasons. So, then the focus is about trouble shooting and, of course, there is always a new drama on the land. It is never dull. But it is more about the financial investment and gains from the flock growing and being healthy enough to make sure the shepherd’s family is provided for. The bigger the flock, the less and less it is about the individual sheep, and it is certainly not about knowing their names, unless one is sick or causing trouble for the whole flock. 

I contrast this with being in Israel, only a few years ago and watching a small flock of sheep that were always with a shepherd close by. There were no fences or boundaries. At night the shepherd would have a makeshift fence to keep the flock safe and then continue on the next day to somewhere new for fresh food for his sheep. The sheep knew his voice and they followed it. 

Ezekiel 34: 2-4 is about shepherds - bad shepherds. It was written about the Leaders of Israel at the time and is a warning to spiritual shepherds still today. 

“Woe to the Shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally” 

When I consider the vast difference in the way we run sheep farms, it makes sense as to why we in Western Culture simply don't understand what it a means to be a shepherd in the way Jesus spoke of in the Bible.  In the countryside of Israel you still see shepherding happening today as I imagine it was in Bible times. It seems like a very different approach to shepherding compared to Australia. 

Jesus was known for taking the things of the culture and using them as living examples of how God sees His Kingdom. He took the practice of caring for sheep and used it to challenge the people about being "the good shepherd."  I am not sure He would use that same example in Australia for being a “good shepherd" although it would seem that the way sheep farms are run here today has some similarities to the way some churches function. 

If our Denominational fences/boundaries are secure and functioning well, then our congregations will all stay in the right place and keep to themselves. It seems that good boundaries and fences also keep the wrong type of people out, the ones who don't fit or look or act the same as the sheep inside the barriers.  As long as we stay in the fences and keep our heads down and eat what is being supplied, everyone is fine. There is even harsh treatment at times if sheep don't submit to the feeding of the leader. I have personally experienced the type of abuse that Ezekiel 34 speaks of from Shepherds and known many who have experienced the “slaughter of choice animals”.  

When a new farm starts up down the road, the shepherd feels very disappointed, even angry, if a sheep might move to another paddock. I think they call that "sheep stealing”.  If sheep try to cross the boundaries or speak out for change, they might be considered trouble makers, and might be asked to leave or get kicked out. Sadly, the Shepherd is not often seen in the paddocks with the sheep, except when trouble hits or sickness comes. It is not often about the individual but rather the flock as a whole and making sure they are safely in the right paddock and eating the right food. I don't want to go into the financial investment or gain for the shepherd and their family, but simply put, I don't see many pastors/leaders in Churches who would shepherd unless they were paid to do so. Jesus did challenge the shepherds about the fact that the hired hand quickly runs away when trouble hits, but the true shepherd stands and protects. 

Now, as pastor/leader myself, I find this picture very confronting. To be honest, as I drive past farm after farm in the countryside I find the lifestyle very comfortable and attractive. (Again, Maybe too much McLeod's Daughters).  But it was on the hills of Israel that I found it confronting to watch a shepherds sit for hours in the heat, always with his sheep. I watched them walk slowly with the sheep, searching for sustainable food for the day. I watched them run home with them each night to the shelter. I imagine that they knew each sheep and their uniqueness, as there was often 30-40 maximum together with one shepherd.  

I just wonder if building the fences and boundaries, which seems a natural thing to do to in Australia, has simply changed our focus of what it means to be a shepherd in Western Culture? On a sheep farm there is nothing wrong with it. It is the right thing to do, but when Jesus talked of being a shepherd, he was talking about something completely different to what we see all around our country side. A colleague said to me the other day, “I wonder if God looks down and says every now and then, ‘What are you shepherds doing? That was not what I meant?’” 

Simply put, as shepherds we are called to care for the sheep, keep them safe, be together, help them to grow healthy, to love and value each one. In Israel the focus is more on the sheep and doing life with them. In Australia I wonder if we focus too much on the fences/boundaries, what we feed our flock to keep them in the paddock and making sure our paddock looks just right so they don't have to go anywhere else.