August 27, 2023

Next Generations

Who inspired your faith development? Did you admire someone so much that you wanted to know what inspired them? Did someone share spiritual songs or stories with you or introduce you to inspiring art? Did someone read Bible stories with you? Did someone seem approachable and safe to ask questions about life and faith? Did you have a friend with whom
you could share confidences, inspirations and questions? An atheist friend and I often engaged in long, passionate debates. Our back-and-forth made our own self-understandings grow.

A longtime Christian friend and I have a weekly phone book studies of a wide range of books about faith. Such open-hearted dialogs are almost always rewarding. Spiritual growth requires safe, respectful, environments, positive relationships. The caring initiatives of parents and extended family and church member friends empower children to sort out their spiritual
beliefs and practices. God told Abraham, the patriarch of Christianity, Judaism and Islam: “As for you, you shall keep my covenant–you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.” [Genesis 17:9]

The Bible includes numerous commands to pass faith on to younger generations. The Torah also addresses destructive effects of behavior. Exodus says, The iniquity of the fathers [will be visited] upon the children, and upon the children's children,
unto the third and to the fourth generation. [34.7]

Helping inspire faith requires communicating one’s own enthusiasm and joy. Psalm 145 says, "One generation shall praise Your works to another." This is more than simply teaching. Spiritual development is inspired by contagious joy and trust in God. [Jesus] told the disciples that they must become so infatuated with God’s kingdom and following him that all other allegiances must fade away. Why the word "infatuated"? Christianity is more than faithful thinking and feelings. It is a love alignment and allegiance to God. Furthering Spiritual development is not just education about following Jesus. Contagious joy in following Jesus inspires faith-filled life.

Psalms 102 and 79 explain: This will be written for the generation to come, that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD. We your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise. [v.13 and 18 and 13] Isaiah 58 describes the PURPOSE of passing on faith: You shall build the old waste places: you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in. [v.12] Joel sums up: “Tell your children about it, and let your children tell their children, and their children the next generation.” [1.3].

Unfortunately today , Christian disciplines are prone to be lax; and progressive churches tend to avoid tough issues and theology tends to be vague. For example: How do we understand the inter-workings of the Trinity? How do we make decisions about social ethics? According to Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people, “Give heed to yourself and keep your soul
diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life; make them known to your sons and your grandsons." Moses tells people first and foremost to nurture their own souls. Then they will be able to teach children. [v.4.9] The Church is called to be a guide and Partner with Parents in Educating Children.

We may feel discouraged because Christianity in America is marginalized and few people are observing religious practices. Post-modern disillusionment with doctrine and institutionalized religion is widespread. Because of general apathy and the remaining influence of modern empiricism, spirituality is vague or irrelevant for many people. Fading Christianity significantly contributes to young people being less religiously active. They have little exposure to faith. College chaplain Brian Mountford asserts that70% of young people say they have no religion. Mountford’s book, Religion and Generation comprised of young adult interviews offers insightful firsthand perspectives.

Our challenge to bolster the vibrancy of Christianity is to reach out to young people (on MORE than one occasion!). Yet American Christians tend to yield to fear of pushing religion or embarrassment. By doing nothing, faith fails to be passed on. Evangelism is relegated to zealous Christians who tend to alienate others with dogmatism. Substantive conversation
across generations can be daunting. No one has a Wikipedia of spiritual answers. Except maybe to there are no absolute answers. That’s OK. Our spiritual experiences and even our unanswered questions are valuable to help others explore their spirituality.

Sincere enthusiasm imparted in the form of “I” statements or brief personal stories seems to be most effective way of inspiring others’ interest in faith. IF we initiate interactions. A supportive listener helps the other person reflect on their functioning theology. What beliefs guide my life? What do I wonder about? What concerns or fears still unsettle me? Are my
beliefs helping or restricting my life?

A few reminders that can help discussions about faith: Ask beforehand if they’d be open to sharing about spirituality. If they say no, then offer an open invitation and briefly explain why faith is important to you. You already know what’s valuable in discussions: Listen, listen, listen. Follow up responses with open-ended, non-intrusive questions. Briefly share why faith is important to you. Make sure they do more talking than you do. Ask what questions they have. My husband George trained volunteer hospital chaplains. The leaders then decided if volunteers were a good match for hospital chaplaincy. One woman was an enthusiastic candidate. However, she was consistently too zealous to tell HER story rather than listening. She was not accepted in the chaplaincy program. Leaders recommended she help in the gift shop.

Admittedly, listening is difficult when talking about faith or anything especially important to us. Recently, I asked our son if he’d be interested in talking with me about spirituality. He said he’d like that, so last week George and I talked with him about spirituality. One of George’s main concerns is young people’s spirituality. George immediately jumped in with a lengthy
explanation of his insights. Unfortunately, because I felt this “discussion” was so important, I defensively added my extensive perceptions about spirituality…rather than listening. Our son nodded and responded politely. The “discussion” fizzled out. All of us were disappointed.

Communications experts remind us that preachy monologues are ineffective. Yipes! What does that say about sermons? As we’ve learned from school and workplace lectures, monologues can be opportunities to think about other things. Despite this awareness, we can forget that even our heartfelt lectures to family or friends will rarely bear fruit. How do we know where the other person is coming from if we do not listen and ASK FOLLOW UP questions? People learn by sorting things out for themselves. Our perceptive questions and sensitive nudges can help, maybe not as forcefully as Liza Doolittle who shouted, “Don’t talk of llove—SHOW me!”

It bothered me that Jesus seemed to spend little time getting to know the other person. Was Jesus a good relationships role model? Then I realized that if the Gospels had focused on details about specific people with whom Jesus interacted, Gospel readers would have more difficulty identifying with the situation and the Gospels would be twice as long. To tell a story that people can relate to, supplying just enough details to make the point is more effective than giving details that listeners cannot identify with. Plus, Jesus likely noticed far more about people than we do. We cannot presume we know what the other person is concerned about. Yet we can try to notice if a person is lonely, anxious, guilt-ridden, or arrogant, etc.? The best way to find out what is important to the other person is to ASK. Sensitivity, non-aggressiveness, and patience also enhance discussions. If we listen well, we might surprise and enlighten both participants.

Mennonites are steeped in tradition that is emphasizes sensitivity and caring. BUT kindness does not reach others unless we purposefully connect with them, whether children, worship visitors, strangers or family members who are without a spiritual community. Do you know the names of the children in the church? Do you greet them with eye contact and a smile?

Teaching the content of the Christian faith is also important. I wanted to tell a nine-year-old boy last week about how Jesus’ teachings, related to the issue he face. I asked if he knew who Jesus was. The boy responded bluntly, “No.” Telling Bible stories and sharing spiritual songs and praying with children and young adults is significant to passing faith on to younger generations. Perhaps consider a The Peace Table. It provides a peace witness and prompts concerning more violent passages. Young adults might enjoy the contemporary translations of The Message Bible.

Despite all the hurdles, spirituality is indomitably resilient. Doh Nay Kaw age 15 wrote this reflection to express her MennoCon23experience with her youth group from Whitehall Mennonite Church in PA: --Transformation is not linear nor comes to a stopping point; it’s day by day, grace by grace, strength to strength. We do not evolve into butterflies and stay like
that for our entire lives but radically embrace on the journey of self-discovery, fears, weaknesses and mistakes. I am a catalyst to forge a path of transformation, unshaken by adversity, letting my spirit be a beacon of love and healing. I am present to proclaim that redemption can be found in the most unexpected places, and the testament of our scars helps us navigate through the stormy seas of life into infinite possibilities that lie ahead. [excerpts]

1 Chronicles decrees: Remember God’s covenant forever, the word that God commanded for a thousand generations. [16.15] With strong commitment to sharing our faith, we can be part of restarting a chain reaction of faith and religious community. I hope and pray that we will be part of this revolution.

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