Gospel

Awaiting that Day: A Meditation on Death, Lament, and the Possibility of Hope

Today I will join hundreds of other people in remembering something that no one wants to be true, the loss of a child. My dear brother in Jesus, Pierson, was more than just a little boy. His family has rightly described him as a superhero, and this is exactly what he was. A resilience and energy that could only come from some secret ability. A capacity and desire to live life to the fullest, even when it was complicated by an enemy that never left his side. A smile (when you didn't get a growl, which still made you smile) that lit up a room in unforgettable ways. A quiet soul, until he opened up, and then there was no place for you to speak. 

I was not nearly as close to Pierson as so many, and yet he has left an indelible mark on my life (and countless other people can say the same). One memory I will always cherish stands out:

Kris was throwing an event for the children's ministry at church last summer and was hosting an art party. Pierson was there painting his heart out, making sure that every color received ample use. But the adult size table, plus the easel on top made it quite a stretch to reach the top of the canvas for my little friend. Before you know it, he was sitting in my lap and we were collaboratively painting a masterpiece on my canvas. I would imitate his every move. He thought it was hilarious. He would put the back of the paintbrush just under his lower lip while he considered the next color. I would do the same, and a virtually simultaneous sigh of consideration would emerge. I must say, it was a brilliant work, and I couldn't have done it without him. He took the painting home. I took that memory with me and will never forget it. 

In my academic work I focus especially on questions of trauma, human suffering, and death. What is the Christian response to these things and how can Christians understand what God has done in Jesus as Good News in a world filled with so much pain? One might think that someone who has devoted their life to the exploration of these questions would have something meaningful to say at a time like this. But in many ways, I am at a loss for words. 

I have spent the last six months trying to think of "what I would say" to people who find themselves in this place, who are trapped in their circumstances and suffering and who want nothing more than to be delivered, to find hope. When Pierson died we told our boys and tried to create a space for them to process that their friend would be absent in a way they had never experienced before. We asked if they had any questions, which they did, and we did our best to answer them. Then my youngest asked this question:

"When God remakes the world, will Pierson be there?"

"Yes," we told him, "yes he most definitely will." But hope for the future is an incomplete solution to the reality that he has died. Christians believe this because we understand that death (the result of the Powers of Sin and Death) is an enemy. Not only is it an enemy, but it is one that Christians believe has been broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus and will ultimately be defeated when the Triune God makes "all things new". 

This dissonance, that Christians have hope, and that death is a terrible thing which the work of Jesus is in the process of overcoming, has given me a new appreciation for the richness of lament. 

Lament in Scripture is most often associated with the subset of the book of Psalms classified as lament psalms. Within this group there are subsections of various styles and contents. (For a great book about this see Glenn Pemberton's Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.) Here is what I am learning in this season about lament:

Lament is not sadness, or grief, or anger. It can be any of those things and more. But at its core, lament is a witnessing to God of the ways in which our lives in the world are not as they should be. They are sometimes a form of protest, or a plea for deliverance, or an accusation of injustice. In the end, they all in their own particular way say, "The world isn't supposed to be like this."

My children should be wearing their superhero shirts today because they are playing with Pierson, not because they are gathered to remember his life which was taken from him. The innocent shouldn't suffer, and frankly, no one should. Christians understand this because we await a renewed world in which grief and pain and death are no more. And the gap between the world we await and the world in which we live brings us pain and longing and even hope. 

I have full confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who broke the power of sin and death in the cross and resurrection will make all things right in the end. Tonight I will join millions of Orthodox Christians around the world as we shout Christo Anesti! (Christ is risen!). And we will join our voices in the liturgy that has sustained the church for centuries:

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life
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This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

It is this hope to which we cling on days like this. The hope that Christ has defeated death and is the giver of life. But what do you say? How do you speak to what did happen, not what we hoped would happen? The following is where I have arrived in reflecting on the loss of my dear brother in Jesus, Pierson. This is my testimony as I gather with others today to lament to God and confess my hope in the resurrected Son of God:

I believe that on that Day, when the Triune God remakes the world, that death and suffering will be no more. And on days like this, I wish that Day was yesterday. Christo Anesti! Maranatha!

A Gospel Big Enough for Little Ones...

Jesus loves me this I know,
     for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong,
     they are weak but he is strong.

In this series I want to ask if the way that we talk about the Gospel is big enough to include the scope of which Scripture itself speaks, and of the people that are served by those churches. The language that we use, and their formative impact both intentional and unavoidable, have immense consequences for any community of believers. So in this installment I want to explore this question:

IS THE GOSPEL AS IT IS TAUGHT AND IMPLIED IN YOUR COMMUNITY OF FAITH BIG ENOUGH TO INCLUDE CHILDREN AS CHILDREN?

Here are just a few of the issues and questions that need to be asked when thinking about the Gospel and its implications for children as children:

  • Does the way your church talks about the Gospel have a place for children to be full participants in the life and mission of the church?
  • Does the death and resurrection of Jesus have tangible implications for children as children or is its "real value" found only by those mature enough to grasp their own sinfulness and need of redemption? In other words, is the saving work of Jesus for them now, or for them soon/someday?
Bible 6.jpg

The way in which we teach the Gospel to children speaks volumes about our convictions about God, evil, the life of the church, and the redemptive work of Christ.

If you want to know what someone thinks about the Gospel, ask them how they explain it to the children in their family or in their church.

DOES THE WAY YOUR CHURCH TALKS ABOUT THE GOSPEL HAVE A PLACE FOR CHILDREN TO BE FULL PARTICIPANTS IN THE LIFE AND MISSION OF THE CHURCH?

Are children welcome to participate in worship in keeping with their desire and gifting? Could a child read Scripture in the assembly? Can they participate in Communion? Do they feel as if they are full members of the Kingdom of God or merely as little ones who someday will decide to be Christians? Does your church employ language that struggles to articulate their relationship to the larger church (you might not necessarily call them "members" like you do an adult) and to the saving work of Christians (that they might not be thought of as "saved" in the same way as adults)? Does your church have any way for children to serve as equal participants (and not some other, more marginal capacity like "helpers") in God's redemptive mission in the world?

If your answer to any of these questions is "no" then it is possible that the way the Gospel is articulated in your community and the way that it is formed in the heart of that child is not big enough to include children as children

DOES THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS HAVE TANGIBLE IMPLICATIONS FOR CHILDREN AS CHILDREN OR IS ITS "REAL VALUE" FOUND ONLY BY THOSE MATURE ENOUGH TO GRASP THEIR OWN SINFULNESS AND NEED OF REDEMPTION? IN OTHER WORDS, IS THE SAVING WORK OF JESUS FOR THEM NOW, OR FOR THEM SOON // SOMEDAY?

When your community speaks to children about the death and resurrection of Jesus when do children experience the implications and benefits made possible by Christ's saving work? Is the Good News something for them in heaven (after death), when they reach the "age of accountability" and receive forgiveness of sins (after childhood), or in the present? Does your church use language that speaks about children as "innocent" or "exempt" that suggests that in some ways they are not (currently) in need of the redemptive work of Jesus? Is the primary formational response to the Gospel one of hope for the future (heaven or the forgiveness of sins when they become "accountable") or is it focused on the ethical response to the work of Christ here and now as children?

If your community struggles to articulate how children are active participants in the gospel as children then it is possible that the way you instill the gospel in children is not large enough to include them as children. 

ANY ARTICULATION OF THE GOSPEL THAT ISN'T GOOD NEWS FOR AND INCLUSIVE OF CHILDREN IS INSUFFICIENT. IT HAS CONSEQUENCES FOR THE FORMATION OF OUR KIDS AND MUST BE REIMAGINED TO BETTER ARTICULATE THE TRUTH THAT THE GOSPEL IS GOOD NEWS FOR ALL PEOPLE, NOT JUST ALL ADULT PEOPLE. 

Here are just a couple of ways that an articulation of the Gospel that isn't big enough for children as children has the power to (mis)shape the precious little ones in our care:

  • There emerges a false dichotomy between between childhood and "early adulthood". For little ones the Good News of the Gospel becomes little more than some form of preemptive insurance. It is information and truth that they will need as they emerge from childhood. There is often a move from positive, generic ethical actions (be kind, share, tell the truth, etc.) to more "Christian" practices such a repentance, baptism, spiritual disciplines, evangelism, and leadership development. 
  • The elements that "transition" them from children to "youth" are not theologically animated but are typically arbitrary (age, grade in school, etc.) This results in the formation of children serving functionally as some form of incubation or inoculation. It is preventative or formative work for when they can "respond" to the Gospel. And it is assumed, by the structure of many churches, that this place of transformation is rooted in someone's (arbitrary) age or educational achievement. 
  • We have done little to form and prepare children who do not continue in our congregation's spiritual formation program into adulthood. I think we would find that in this paradigm most children who don't remain in the community of faith into adulthood leave with little more than some basic ethical teachings they could get anywhere and a smattering of biblical stories, some of which could prove to be problematic later.

SO WHAT MIGHT BE WE DO TO BETTER ARTICULATE A GOSPEL THAT IS BIG ENOUGH FOR CHILDREN WHILE THEY ARE CHILDREN?

There are a number of important textual and theological questions that need to be explored as well as some time to reflect on our language and practice that I want to explore in future posts. So for now, let me propose a number of possibilities without explanation or the theological convictions behind these suggestions (that is what the future posts are for):

  • Children should be more intentionally incorporated into the worship service including in leading songs, prayers, and the reading of Scripture.
  • Children should be welcome and guided very intentionally as they participate in the Lord's Supper from an early age.
  • Children should be formed in an environment that engages them with the real ethical and moral questions that face their peers (e.g., hunger, abuse, poverty, death, etc.).
  • The biblical narratives that we choose as the primary formation of our children should be thought out more carefully than simply the stories that are "memorable" and can capture the imagination, but which can ultimately prove to be difficult and problematic texts later in life.

There can be no doubt that the church has both a great responsibility and great opportunity in the formation of children as participants in God's redemptive work in the world. May we take such a task with utter seriousness.