Saturday Night Theologian
27 December 2009

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 (first published 28 December 2003)

Proverbs 22:6 says that if you raise children in the right ways, when they are old they will not depart from those ways. Some people make the mistake of believing that this verse is a hard and fast rule, rather than a general principle. I've even heard misguided Bible teachers use this verse to prove that, because a child has departed from the right way, the parents must not have raised that child properly to begin with. Such a misapplication of the Bible only underscores the teacher's failure to understand both the nature of the Bible in general and of proverbial material in particular. Training children to trust God, to spend time in prayer, and to treat others the way they would want to be treated is vitally important, and even if the child rebels at a certain age, as many do, the good teachings of youth will usually bring that child back to his or her spiritual and moral moorings at some point. Samuel was a child who served in the Shiloh temple from a very early age. He was raised by Eli the priest, and he participated in the worship that went on in the temple, even prior to his first personal encounter with God (described in 1 Samuel 3). The biblical text portrays Samuel as a man who continued to be faithful to God all his life, serving as prophet, priest, and judge, and ultimately anointing Israel's first two kings. While one might reject the idea of his parents leaving their young son in the care of religious authorities rather than raising him themselves, one must remember the cultural differences between that time and ours, including the commitment that was implied when one made a vow to God. We certainly can't argue with the results. Samuel was raised by a godly man, Eli, and he was initiated into the formalities of worship while he was still young. The Roman Catholic Church for years has used altar boys--and now altar girls--as assistants to the priests during mass, a practice that too few Protestants have imitated successfully. Church leaders need to include children in their services on a regular basis, not just at Christmas time or when the children's choir sings. Both liturgical and non-liturgical churches can figure out ways to include children and teenagers into their services: reading scripture, taking up the offering, lighting candles, distributing bulletins or fliers, playing musical instruments, or assisting adults in other ways. I read a story in today's paper that said that Japanese churches were having a hard time keeping young people interested in Christianity--and the problem is hardly exclusive to Japan. If we don't figure out ways to integrate our children into the church today, we are in danger of losing them tomorrow.

Psalm 148 (first published 28 December 2003)

I've always hated cold weather. I know that many people like it, but I'm not one of them. I'm not opposed to an occasional snowfall, especially if I don't have to drive in it, and I can see the benefit in having it get cold enough to kill the mosquitoes, but in general, I just don't like cold weather. Winter for me is one long countdown to spring. One thing I do like about winter, though, is that as winter progresses, the days get longer and the nights get shorter. This week we saw the first day of winter (in the northern hemisphere--readers in Australia may want to put this devotional "on ice" for six months!). The early church didn't celebrate Christmas, because they saw Easter as a much more significant day. Not only did they celebrate Easter at the beginning of spring, they also celebrated it every Sunday in worship. At some point around the fourth century, though, the church began to celebrate Christmas as well, and they set the date on the 25th of December. Some have speculated that the date was based on conception at the same time of the year as Easter, with Jesus' birth nine months later. Others suggest that the date was chosen to correspond with and sanctify the pagan holiday of Saturnalia, the annual celebration tied to the beginning of winter and the gradual lengthening of days. Christians and pagans alike recognized the value in celebrating the fact that days were once again getting longer, that God had not abandoned his people to complete darkness. Whether you prefer cold weather or hot, spring or fall, there is always a good reason to praise God. The psalmist calls on all creation to praise God, from the angels in heaven to the starry hosts, from the waters of the earth to the sea monsters that were thought to inhabit them, animate and inanimate, young and old alike. Why should we praise God? Does God derive some pleasure or benefit from our praise? Possibly, but I've always had a bit of a hard time imagining that God revels in the adulations of his people. We all know the pleasure that we feel when we receive praise for something good that we've done, but few of us want others to fawn over us , constantly reminding us how great we are. If we don't enjoy that, why do we imagine that God does? Why, then, should we praise God? I think we need to praise God, at least in part, because the act of praise reminds us that we are part of something greater than ourselves. Humans often think of themselves as rulers of the earth, the pinnacle of evolution (or creation), the most intelligent beings on the planet, or even in the universe. Praising God reminds us that God is greater than we are. Furthermore, the fact that we are joined in our praise by animals, plants, rocks, and oceans reminds us that we are part of an immense, interconnected system of organisms and objects that make up our world--and ultimately the universe. By praising God alongside other parts of creation, we acknowledge our part in that creation. It's an important part to be sure, but it's not necessarily the most important, nor is it essential. The world could survive quite well without humans. So let us join the psalmist in praising God, alongside the rest of creation, secure in the knowledge that we are here for a reason, and that when we remember our proper place in the grand scheme of things, we are more likely to be able to figure our what that reason is.

Colossians 3:12-17

Today's reading from the Apostle: "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with silk, fine linen, expensive jewelry, Italian leather shoes, and all manner of riches." What, you've never heard that translation of Colossians 3:12? Perhaps that's because you don't belong to a church that subscribes to the prosperity "gospel." Many of the purveyors of this (per)version of the gospel assert that Jesus was not poor, as has been commonly believed by Christians throughout the ages, but was in fact a rich man. Pastor C. Thomas Anderson of Mesa, AZ, supports this contention by noting that the soldiers who crucified Jesus cast lots over his underwear, proving it must have been worth a lot. "I don't know anybody--even Pamela Anderson--that would have people gambling for his underwear," Anderson claims. All that statement proves is that Pastor Anderson has never heard of eBay, where celebrity underwear is sold regularly for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Some exponents of the health and wealth gospel say that they teach that riches prove God's blessing in an effort to get the rich to donate more to the poor. That sentiment may be well-meaning, but it's still a gross misrepresentation of the true message of most of the Bible, including the gospel, that God cares about the poor, and that God often chooses to work through the poor. If being rich were an indication of God's blessing, then prophets like Amos and Jeremiah and New Testament figures like Peter, Paul, and Mary--yes, and Jesus too--would have to be considered outsiders to God's plan. The prosperity "gospel" is, as Paul says of another distortion of the gospel in Galatians, not a gospel at all, because it is not good news for the poor, the outsider, the marginalized of society. It promotes selfishness and seeking after worldly gain. So what should those truly devoted to Christ seek? To clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Luke 2:41-52 (first published 28 December 2003)

Often when I hear the story of Jesus in the temple, Jesus is presented in supernatural terms. The person expounding the story describes Jesus sitting among the temple scholars teaching them his wisdom, which he can only have received directly from God. A simple reading of the biblical story reveals something entirely different, yet more profound. When Jesus' parents finally locate Jesus, they find him sitting among the teachers of the temple, listening and asking questions. Those who heard his conversations were amazed at his understanding and his answers. Far from teaching the teachers, Jesus was listening to their wisdom and asking probing questions of his own. He was not a twelve-year-old know-it-all, he was a serious, thoughtful boy who wanted to learn all he could. Where was the best place to learn in Jesus' day? The Jerusalem temple, where some of the leading scholars of that time could be found. What opportunities for learning do we provide our young people? Parents should be a child's first teachers in spiritual matters, but many children are not fortunate enough to have parents who are willing or able to impart the kind of wisdom they need to hear. The second line of defense, then, is the church, particularly small groups such as Sunday School, Bible study classes, or youth meetings. All churches offer small group teaching opportunities of one kind or another, but too often the level of teaching in these classes is inadequate to meet the needs of young people, especially those who are thoughtful and serious. The people who lead classes for youth are usually volunteers, and churches are always grateful to have them. However, willingness to volunteer is not the same as being qualified to teach. How would you feel if your teenage daughter were taking algebra from a teacher who didn't know her multiplication tables? Or what would you think about a history teacher who had never studied the subject? Fortunately, the public schools have specific requirements for those who teach particular subjects in middle school and high school (and still the occasional bad teacher slips through!), but churches almost never do. Church leaders need to recognize this problem and figure out ways to address it. If a church has seven classes for middle and high school--one for each grade--but only three qualified teachers for the subject being taught, leaders need to devise ways of letting each young person have the opportunity to learn from people who know what they're talking about. Based on my experience in church education programs, and dealing specifically with the issue of youth education, I see three areas that each church must have in order to have a good youth education program: (1) a well thought out, comprehensive curriculum (not one determined on a whim by each individual teacher or group of teachers); (2) teachers who know the subject matter (rotating teachers for different subjects, if necessary); (3) teachers who know how to teach (they must know how to listen and to encourage their students to think, not just ram their understanding of the subject matter down their students' throats). When churches successfully integrate these principles into their youth education programs, I believe they will see increased interest, increased attendance, and, most importantly, real spiritual growth among the youth.