Bruce Van Blair
Sunday, February 7, 2016
Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:18-21
OIL SLICKS AND IGNORANCE
(Telling Stories Out of School)
In this church, there is strength and confidence, and we have real doubts and know the taste of mystery. We have problems and draw people with problems – humans instead of social robots. We would not want it known too widely, nor should we dwell on it much, but with a surprised and delighted smile we realize that there are few churches of our size in the country that have as rich a ministry – that are having as great an impact on so many lives.
In the words of Revelation, I came to Laodicea several years ago and now find myself in Thyatira. Though we are not yet Philadelphia or Smyrna, I have always wanted to live there. So have you, whether or not you know it. In another few years, that’s who we can be, if we want to be. That is, the Lord invites us into it – if we will trust and follow. Philadelphia, I hope. Smyrna is too rigorous for me. Though some of you wouldn’t mind, if that is what the Lord wants.
Despite my delight in being a part of this church, this new year finds me with a new concern about an old issue. Just because an issue is old does not mean it has gone away. You would think that one major oil spill would be enough – that we would make sure it would never happen again; that we would have too much love and concern for what is being destroyed to ever move another barrel of oil until we were certain it was safe. This issue is now old, but it has not gone away.
Ignorance of Christian tradition has spread like an oil slick through our society. Everybody knows it. Some are quite concerned. Many of us have tried to do something about it. Our efforts have not stopped the disaster. The issue is old, but it has not gone away. It will not go away. We will either find a better way to teach, to transfer the information, to keep the knowledge of the Christian Faith alive, or it will be lost to the coming generations.
Like the birds dying everywhere, the stories, the hymns, the prayers, the concepts, and the customs of the Christian Faith are being destroyed by the spreading darkness. Strong pockets of fundamentalist Christians still tell and teach the stories far more than we do. But they tell them in such dark ways and mix them with such bitterness that one almost wonders if the ignorance isn’t better than the corruption.
What does it mean for us here? It is imperative Christian truth to know that we are not God – that we cannot save the world. Too much zeal to “right all the wrongs” plays straight into Satan’s hands. I cannot change the world. Maybe, with God’s help, I can grow and learn and be changed myself. We cannot stop the spreading ignorance of Christian truth and tradition. But with God’s help, if we choose to, we can make it different here, in this church, for ourselves and our children, and for the people who come here.
What does it mean for us here? It means we have to make some changes, starting with me. Let me try to explain.
I am not on a private guilt trip. I have never felt less like blaming you. Not a lot of Pastors put more emphasis than I do on adult education. I have known for years that you cannot start with the children. If the adults do not know or care, the children will not learn or remember. One of the major reasons for the spread of the “oil slick” is because we decided to concentrate our educational efforts on the children and forget the adults.
Here in this church, we have been putting a lot of emphasis on Bible Study groups, classes, workshops, and retreats – for adults. And many of you have responded. Many of you have discovered already that the more you know about Christ and the Faith, the more fascinating it all becomes. And I have been having a marvelous time! I have been teaching the classes and doing far more than my share of talking at the study groups, so I have been learning at a great rate. I have put enormous energy into this area of our church’s life. So I have been doing well and you have been doing well, yet we have not been able to solve the spread of ignorance, even in our own midst.
1.) New people come. A few of them come from rich faith backgrounds and have all the foundational information. Most do not. In a church this small, how do we offer them the information we just covered, without boring (stopping and losing) those who just went through it?
2.) I keep underestimating how far the “oil slick” has already spread because it is very uneven. Most of you are terribly bright; you just have not been exposed to the information yet. But enough of you have the knowledge, so it gave me the impression that the rest of you have at least a fair foundation and understanding. It turns out that this is not true. It is not something for you to be ashamed of. It is something for me to be ashamed of.
3.) Some of you argue that it doesn’t make any difference whether anybody knows the information anyway. Christianity is so simple that, like marriage and helping people, anybody can do it if they just want to and do what comes naturally. And that’s why the world is so perfect already, right?
* * *
We come from diverse backgrounds. I often forget just how diverse. Between kindergarten and my senior year in high school, I missed Sunday School and church maybe a total of ten or twelve times. In addition, we always had the sermon around the infield during Sunday dinner, the main meal of the week. On Saturday night, the subject often came up because one or both of my parents were preparing their Sunday School lessons. I’m simply saying that it is hard for me to comprehend that a person could grow up never having heard of Gideon or Elijah or Abednego. My first reaction, when somebody tries to tell me that, is “You’re putting me on.”
Only, today I am starting to run into people who have never heard of Moses or David or Abraham! They cannot recite the Lord’s Prayer. They think “grace” is a woman’s name. They think “joy” is being happy and “hope” is wishful thinking (or women’s names too), and they have no inkling of what those words mean in Christendom. I have trouble getting it through my head that somebody could not know such things. It is not a superiority thing; it is an exposure thing. That makes it no less serious for the church. How do you preach to somebody who thinks that “being washed in the blood” would make you red instead of white and make you all icky instead of truly clean for the first time? If you don’t speak the language, how can we talk about the Faith?
It goes across the board, of course. Why do Christians wait until they are married before they make love? The usual answer? “I don’t know. I thought that was in the olden days.” Or what is the significance of baptism? “I think it has something to do with washing, but I don’t really know.”
More and more it is coming clear that people have not left the Christian Faith because they do not like it or have found something better. They know nothing about it, have never tried it, and would not know what to do if they wanted to try it.
The other day I was talking about the hymns we sing during worship each week. This person was asking, with casual interest, about my choice of hymns. He found it very difficult to believe that I truly love and am deeply moved by the hymns that we sing. It seemed to him that I didn’t pick the good ones very often. In a sudden flash of deeper insight, I asked him how many hymns he knew. He knew three and didn’t like two of them! I have known hundreds of hymns for as far back as I can remember, and have sung some of them hundreds of times. How will this friend and I ever understand each other? Can he go someplace to learn them? Can I go someplace to unlearn them?
What I am coming to is the realization that I have been reaching some of you but it is not changing the frame or content or structure of your life at home yet. I have to get some of it simpler. You have to help. Everybody gets to participate. That’s what we have not done yet: get everybody to participate. I cannot teach everybody, each one where they are, all the time. We all have to teach – so we ourselves can learn, and so everybody can learn.
Most of all, we need to get the framework clear. How does faith grow and spread? Without maybe any of us believing it, we act like faith starts at church, then goes to the individual, then maybe begins to seep into the home. Yet that is not true. Faith starts with the individual, goes to the family, then comes to church.
Faith begins with the individual: an encounter of some kind with God, with the Holy Spirit; an experience of “the Other,” the dimensions beyond; a touch of the Numinous, the Holy, the Caring. It may come to our awareness first in nature; in art or music; in a crisis or deep pain. It may come through another human that the Spirit is using; through a pet; in a love affair; in a quiet time when we have gone within. It may even come when we are at a church and encounter as an individual the presence of God. But at that point we are not yet the church, the body of Christ, the fellowship of believers. Church is not where we go to find God. Church is what we do and become because we have found God – because we have encountered the Holy Spirit. Then, after the encounter, there is the incredible need to learn and grow and be part of a fellowship where others also want to live in some way appropriate to what has been experienced.
So faith starts with the individual awakening. It goes to the home next because that is where the person lives. Thankfulness, prayers, study; reworking choices and plans and especially lifestyle according to what has been encountered – these are inevitable. The home – and the ways and customs of the home – always reflects the faith within it. If that faith changes, the customs and practices of the home will change to match. Sometimes this causes mayhem, if some members hate or resent the faith, while others are enthralled with it.
The outcome is obvious. The faith will be abandoned or the home will be split – or faith will take over the home. There are no other options. People like to think there is one other option, but there is not. We have known and chewed over these things since before Paul wrote to the Corinthians.
The larger community, the fellowship of believers – the church – is meant to enhance, to help, to further the experience of both the individual and the family. IF THE FAMILY IS NOT TRYING TO LIVE A CHRISTIAN LIFESTYLE AT HOME, COMING TO CHURCH WILL NOT DO VERY MUCH GOOD.
If the Bible is not read and studied at home, the teaching of the church will be too slow and infrequent for a person to ever get much grasp of the Scriptures. If you saw the most beautiful person in the world from a block away, in a dense crowd, for two and a half seconds, it might not be enough information to attract your interest. The Bible and the Christian Faith have attracted the interest of thousands of people in every generation and condition and culture and circumstance for a very long time now, and with sufficient force to occupy their whole lives. There is no question about the subject being interesting. The only question is about exposure.
If the Christian Faith is not talked about, shared, and struggled over at home, the amount of time spent at church will not be great enough to start the reaction. Even if there is occasional impact, it will normally be so diluted by a week’s interruption that it will be lost.
The bottom line is that we are carrying almost no Christian tradition, weight, teaching, sharing, or praying in the daily life of most homes today. The church cannot stand in for that loss. It is designed to enhance – not to replace. It is designed to encourage and inspire what is already going on – not to be the whole show. If we want the church to stand in for family life, we are going to have to show up here at least two hours every day in addition to the time we already spend here. This is not new, or news. You heard the passages from Deuteronomy. Our tradition has always known that the core teaching must be from parents to children.
Therefore, we are going to find some way to move back into the home. We have to. Most of us really want to; we just don’t know how yet. It will cause some problems as well as delights, but we mostly want to. And more than that, it is necessary.
We will start nice and easy. “Easy does it.” We are all going to learn many stories this year. We will learn them, tell them, listen to each other tell them. We will tell them mostly at home. Home first, remember, then at church.
But we will all do this together – young and old; pros and neophytes; saints and sinners; men and women and children and youth. Do not exempt anybody in your family. They may insist and exempt themselves; it is still a free country. But do not exempt them – do not assume they will not be part of it. Make them prove it.
Then on Sunday, we will tell the story here. In addition, we may need to reconsider our Sunday morning together and get all of us back into Sunday School – and our kids back into church.
The Story of Abraham and Isaac
Copyright 2016 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.