October 23, 2011

Courageous Familes

The period of history stretching from roughly the 5th century to the 15th century in Europe is often known as the Middle Ages.  This was the era of castles and knights and chivalry and kings and queens and a nearly endless series of wars over land and religion.  The Middle Ages are known more negatively for things like the Crusades (when the evil, land-grabbing Christians marched on the poor, defenseless, innocent Muslims in Jerusalem), the Black Death (when a third of the population of Europe died because people wouldn’t take a bath), and the Dark Ages (the period of the Middle Ages after Rome fell but before the rise of the modern scientific method saved the West from the several-hundred-years intellectual blight).  (And in case the sarcasm wasn’t thick enough there, my descriptions of each one of those things, although widely believed at the popular level, are all grotesquely historically inaccurate.)  Anyway, when most people think about the Middle Ages, they associate those centuries pretty closely with the Dark Ages and assume it was an era of human history better forgotten than remembered.  The reality, however, is that a whole lot of culture was created during the Middle Ages.  Some of the world’s—not merely the West’s—most enduring art and literature, music and even science came out of the period of the Middle Ages.  As with any period of history there was a locus for all this once popular culture that has now become classic.  Just like the bulk of the popular culture today comes out of Hollywood, the bulk of the popular culture then came out of a single institution.  Take some guesses as to what that institution was.  Yeah, it was the church.  Any artist worth his stuff was connected with the church and was creating culture in that context.  The church was the single largest supporter of the arts in the Middle Ages.  Furthermore, the vast majority of the art created during this period was intentionally designed to glorify God.  Today, though, the church has largely ceded the status of culture-maker to the world.  It far too often has contended itself with criticizing the culture being made rather than making any itself.  While we certainly should be able to stand in the place of the ancient prophets in calling our culture to return to God-honoring practices along with pointing out the places where it is not currently doing so, how much better would it be if we were the ones creating the culture in the first place so we didn’t have to worry about its content?  Indeed, our culture today certainly provides a great deal worthy of our fiercest criticism.  But, if all we do is point out places where the culture is not honoring of God, in what way are we working to expand God’s kingdom?  No kingdom ever expanded defensively.  Instead of merely criticizing, then, we need to take the next step of offering something positive in the place of the swamp in which the people around us dwell.

Fortunately, there are some people and places in the church today who are making an effort to create culture.  One such place is a big church down in Georgia called Sherwood Baptist Church.  This is the church behind the movies Flywheel, Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and most recently, Courageous.  Each of these films deals with real life issues in ways that honor God.  In the process, they are creating culture.  Now, they are still a small voice that at times sounds pretty shrill against the storm of mainstream Hollywood, but the influence of this voice is growing.  These movies are offering answers to real problems that real people are really facing.  As folks are giving these answers a try, they are finding that they make a lot of sense.  And the answers these culture-creators are giving are pointing people in the direction of Christ.  This is not so folks dealing with these various issues can take a magic pill that will make everything go away, but instead so they can find the hope and life they need to put solutions in place that will serve to actually solve their problems over the long term instead of merely running from them.

What all of this accomplishes is to create culture.  Through films like this, these believers are creating culture.  They are not content to simply sit back and criticize the state of fatherhood and families in modern America (which is the subject of Courageous), they are actively seeking to create a positive culture of fatherhood and families that reflects Biblical values and points people to embrace Christ to replace the broken system currently in place.  I was part of a ministry in college which sought to create culture through music in order to give fellow students something better to listen to than the junk filling many of their iPods.  I have been in churches who displayed around their building art created by people in their congregation to offer people an artistic culture more spiritually satisfying than the filth that is often called modern art today.  This transition from criticizing to creating is what every single church should be seeking to make in the ways God calls them.  Not every church is called to film-making or music-making or art-creating, but every church is called to create a culture in their community that actively points people in their sphere of influence in the direction of the kingdom.  The way God has created and called us to do this is defined by our mission and vision as we spent three of the previous four weeks talking about.  Our call is to create a culture where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  In our attempt to do this, we are going to take a cue from the movie Courageous, and spend the next three weeks talking about how we can fulfill the vision of the church through our individual families.

The reality of the world around us is that while the picture of the family seems to be slowly crumbling in our culture, nevertheless, the family is still the basic unit of relationships for many, many people.  A person’s family may be broken, but even still we look to our family for love and support before we look anywhere else.  A movie came out a few years ago called August Rush.  It’s about a young music prodigy who had been in an orphanage his entire life.  He never knew his parents.  Eventually, he found himself on the streets of New York being taken advantage of by a modernized Fagin from Dickens’ Oliver Twist who tries to drill into his head that his parents are gone and want nothing to do with him in order to be able to exploit him for his incredible musical abilities.  And yet, the entire movie is about his dedicated search for his parents along with his unwavering belief that they are good people and are looking eagerly to find him.  Or consider the chorus from the song “Maybe” from the classic musical Annie: “Betcha’ their good.  Why shouldn’t they be?  Their one mistake was giving up me.”  We have a longing for family relationships regardless of who we are, where we are, or the culture in which we are raised.  Part of the reason for this is that the family is the primary institution created by God for the passing down of the faith and accordingly has a great deal of power in our lives.  As followers of Christ, then, who are committed to seeing His kingdom expand on the earth, we should absolutely be equally committed to seeing the family become fully what it was designed by God to be.  The reason for this is simple.  Think about it like this: the Bible makes clear that the secret to achieving the good life in this world is through faithful obedience to God’s commands.  The challenge here, though, is that we don’t know all of God’s commands on our own and we certainly don’t keep them on our own.   What can we do about this?  Well, there’s always the church.  In fact, that’s the direction most people think first.  If we want to help people unlock the life God desires for them to live, we need to get them into the church.  And there is, of course, a great deal of truth to that thought.  I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe it with all my heart.  But, Biblically speaking, the church was not designed to be the first place that happens.  The family was.  God’s first plan for helping people learn and live out the faithful obedience to His commands that will gain them the prize of life is the family.  Indeed, families are the key to unlocking God’s commands.

Making the family what God intended for it to be in this culture, however, is no small feat.  There are numerous challenges facing families who desire to honor God.  Consider this: We live in a culture nearly consumed by its own consumerism.  The total consumer debt in the U. S. as of the first part of this year was $11.5 trillion.  That’s trillion with a T.  That works out to nearly $11,000 worth of debt per household.  And there are few things that tear a family apart worse than debt.  If only, though, that was the extent of the challenges facing our families.  Add to that a burgeoning culture of promiscuity, the amount of work necessary to stay financially afloat, the challenges of the current economic climate, the culture of nihilism and amorality promoted by many of the most popular TV shows nearly everyone here watches regularly, and a variety of other equally dangerous trends and it becomes clear that establishing godly families is not a task for the faint of heart.  Families are the key to unlocking God’s commands, but doing so is going to take a lot of courage.

Now, technically defined, courage is a quality of character that allows a person to face dangerous or difficult or painful experiences without fear.  But, I would argue that courage is not merely acting without fear.  Someone intent on robbing a bank could be described as acting courageously on the basis of that definition.  Indeed, on the basis of that definition the men who piloted planes into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon were courageous as they acted without any apparent fear in the face of danger, difficulty, and pain.  This obviously isn’t the case.  We would all quickly identify them as cowards.  On the other hand, we would all eagerly identify the passengers of Flight 93 who forced the plane to crash in a field (chosen, by the way, with as much intentionality as possible so there were no injuries on the ground), as extremely courageous.  What’s the difference?  The nature of the actions they took.  Courage is not simply acting without fear, it is doing what’s right in spite of fear.  I recently watched the movie The Green Lantern.  It’s about a superhero who gets his powers from a ring that is itself infused with the power of will.  It allows the wearer to create anything his mind can see.  The stronger and more resolute the wearer’s will, the more powerful his creations will be.  In the movie, the force The Green Lantern is opposing is a creature who is the embodiment of fear.  The man chosen by the ring to wear it struggles with a great deal of fear stemming from the death of his hero father and wants to give up the ring because of this fear.  The heroine in the story, however, reminds him that his father wasn’t simply never afraid; he overcame the fear and did the right thing with the power of courage.  Courage isn’t simply acting in the absence of fear, it is acting to do the right thing even in the presence of fear.  And in this acting as if the fear weren’t there, eventually we will discover it isn’t.  Families are indeed the key to unlocking God’s commands which bring life, but turning this key is going to require the courage to act in the face of the fear of how the world might react to such a family.

For the few minutes we have remaining this morning, then, I want to establish a framework from which we are going to get a great deal more specific in the next couple of weeks.  I want to take just a minute to look with you at a passage of Scripture that really sets the standard by which God-honoring families are to operate.  This passage comes from the book of Deuteronomy and was easily the most important passage in the Bible that Jesus and His disciples read.  It makes a good argument to be one of the most important in all of Scripture.  Open your Bibles, if you will, to Deuteronomy 6 and let’s take a look at these verses starting at the beginning of the chapter.  “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long.  Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.  Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

This passage of Scripture, particularly v. 4, is known as the “Shema,” which comes from the imperatival form of the Hebrew word for “Hear.”  In the Hebrew it sounds like this: Shema Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Ehad.  These words set the foundation for the Hebrew religion and, through them, our religion.  Rendered both a bit more literally and interpretively this would read: “Listen Israel: Yahweh is our God and Yahweh is one.”  This magnificent statement gave the people all that they needed to believe in order to be counted among the people of this God: Yahweh (the personal name God revealed to Moses which identifies Him as the ground of all being) is our God.  In other words, we don’t serve any other gods.  We serve Yahweh, the Lord.  Furthermore, Yahweh is the only God like Him.  He is in a class all to Himself.  The very title, Lord, suggests particularism.  There is only one lord of a realm.  When you have two figures claiming to be lord of the realm you have a fight brewing.  All the other things that claim the status of God in this world either aren’t at all or are not figures with anywhere near the power and authority and sovereignty of Yahweh.  Yahweh is the Lord and there is no one like Him.

The second part of the Shema, v. 5, gave the people all they needed to do in light of this belief about Yahweh.  We are to love this God with our whole selves.  Specifically, with all our heart (the locus of our emotions and will in the Hebrew mind), our mind (the locus of our thoughts), and, literally, our very muchness (everything not covered by the first two).  You have heard sermons on this before, I have preached one on this before, and we will both probably be involved in more in the future on this idea.  This is not where I want to focus our attention this morning.  Instead, let’s push on to the next part of the follow up instructions.  First, though, let me give you a bit of context.

Deuteronomy was essentially Moses’ farewell speech to the people of Israel.  In this speech, the vast majority of his time was spent reviewing the Law for the people.  He wanted to drill into their heads one more time the demands of the Law so that they would have them in mind in order to obey them long after he was gone.  If you think about it like this it makes sense: we tend to remember everything someone says on their deathbed.  This was, functionally, Moses speaking on his deathbed.  We can imagine Deuteronomy, then, like a family gathered around the bed of a dying patriarch.  Well, in the culture into which Moses was speaking the family was everything.  A person’s clan identity was one of the most important things about who he was.  There were not schools at which a broad cross-section of young Israelites gathered to have the collective knowledge of their generation crammed into their sponge-like minds.  Instead, everything that children were expected to know, the traditions their people held as sacred, the network of stories which created a framework for their worldviews, and the faith in the God who brought them together as a people were all passed on within the context of each child’s clan.  Well, a clan in those days was simply an extended family network.  A person’s clan identity in that day was the same kind of thing as a person’s family identity today.  So when Moses commanded the people to diligently (we’ll come back to that word) teach these commands to their children, he didn’t have anything even remotely resembling the church in mind.  People went to the synagogue to offer God worship, but they didn’t go their primarily, or even at all, to learn what it meant to be a follower of God.  It was assumed that was happening at home.

With this in mind, then, let’s look at Moses’ instructions.  First, these words should be on their heart.  Now, “these words” refers to pretty much the rest of Deuteronomy, but the first and greatest words were the ones just spoken.  The idea, though, is that we need to be dedicated to the words first.  You can’t pass on something you don’t believe.  As parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles, if we are not totally sold on the words of Scripture, there is no way we are going to pass them along to anybody with any kind of effectiveness.  Our families are going to be defined by our deepest-held beliefs.  If you want to know what your deepest-held beliefs are, take a look at your family.  What activities do you engage in more than anything else?  Go beyond time, though.  Which activities do you engage in with the most heart as a family?  What kinds of practices do you pursue as a family on a regular basis?  Sports?  Television?  Eating out?  Watching movies?  Church activities?  Serving your community in the name of Christ?  Studying the word together?  Which kinds of activities in your family take precedence over everything else?  If there is a conflict, which kinds of things are going to come first?  As a family, where does your money go?  What kinds of things are you willing to sacrifice in order to spend money on others?  Which kind of expenditures are worth pursuing to the detriment of other things in your family?  Do you even talk about money as a family so that every member understands to the limits of their ability where the money you have comes from and why you are spending it where you do?  Do you put family purchases or vacations at the top of that list?  Have you ever sacrificed family comfort in order to give?  What role does your faith play in determining your family spending habits?  If you practice the spiritual discipline of giving as a family does every member understand why you are giving?  Do you understand why you are giving?  Have you ever done anything as a family to spread the message of the Gospel?  How are you allowing the word of God to shape your answers to these kinds of questions?  Is the word of God, the commands of the Scriptures, at the center of your heart when you decide what your family priorities are in all these areas?  Here’s the truth: we live in a culture that screams for the irrelevance of God’s word in determining anything about the shape of your family.  We should be busy (and successful) in sports.  We should spend your money on ourselves.  We should even go to church together, but this should be just one of the full slate of things our family pursues, not the center of importance.  Notice, I said we should go to church together, not worship or grow spiritually together.  If there is any kind of spiritual growth expected to happen, that’s going to fall under the responsibility of the church.  My friends, this is what our culture proclaims.  And for families that deviate from this path, there are consequences.  They may only be social, but those can be bad enough.  The truth is that families are the key to unlocking God’s commands, but it takes a lot of courage to break from the world around you and look or act differently.

Well if the first part of Moses’ instructions gives families the grounding for their pursuit of honoring God together, the second part focuses on the how.  Hear this again because it’s pretty powerful.  “You shall teach them diligently to your children.”  Let’s stop there.  Think about that for just a minute.  Moses doesn’t simply say, “You shall teach them to your children.”  If he had, we could get by with a pretty low amount of engagement in spiritual things with our kids and grandkids.  But again, he didn’t say that.  He said we should teach them diligently to our children.  What does it mean to do something diligently?  It means we pursue whatever it is with dogged intentionality.  Everything we do is aimed at accomplishing the task before us.  We look for ways to do whatever it is with the greatest amount of effectiveness.  We leave nothing to chance.  We create an entire environment that is specifically designed to see the job done to absolute perfection.  Is that how we approach the task of passing on our faith to our children?  Is that how we pursue making certain that our families honor God?  Families are the key to unlocking God’s commands and it takes a lot of work to see that happen.  It’s not going to happen by accident.  Simply having our kids in church is not going to do the trick.  This is a great place, but no church is equipped to take on the tasks that should be happening at home.  Two to three hours a week can’t possibly make up for all day, every day.  And indeed, that’s what Moses envisions: “…talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. …bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. …write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”  Let’s call this what most of us think this is.  If a family actually took this to heart and devoted themselves to incorporating the word of God this much into their daily routines we “normal” Christians would look on them as weird extremists.  Their holiness, we would presume, would be off-putting to the point of driving away the kids and alienating friends and neighbors because who wants to be around someone only and always engages in irritating God-talk?  And yet, if we want to raise the odds of producing kids who are fully devoted followers of Jesus and in fact pursuing such a lifestyle as an entire family, this is what it takes.  This is the degree of intentionality necessary to see it happen.  Anything less than this might result in a family that is fully devoted to pursuing God together, but such a turnout will more than likely be an accident.  We aren’t called to oops our way into the kingdom.  Families are the key to unlocking God’s commands and if we aren’t dedicated to unlocking them there, we will leave ourselves merely peering through the lock and trying to live off the grandeur seeping under the door from simply going to church two to three Sundays out of four.

Now, hear me well on this and then we’ll be out of here.  I’m not saying that our families need to become like those irritating Jesus families that talk about Jesus all the time and have dozens of framed Bible verses around their house and are beating down their neighbors’ doors to get them to come to church.  What I am saying, though, is that if we want to honor God as families and live out this instruction to actively, diligently pass our faith (meaning that we do in fact have it) on to our children so they can experience the life and meaning and purpose and hope God has for them, so they can become fully devoted followers of Jesus, it is going to take more than cursory effort.  It is going to take more than dragging everyone out of bed and pasting on ties, bows, and smiles once a week to be at church like a good, happy family.   It is going to take intentionally living in the patterns of the Gospel and bringing an awareness of the movement of God in such patterns to the whole family.  It is going to take learning to interpret things that happen to the family—both good and bad—through the lens of Scripture.  It is going to take diligently proclaiming and living the God-story revealed in the pages of the Bible to our children so they learn to not only recognize its validity as a worldview but also to defend and commend this story conversationally in their daily lives.  Families are the key to unlocking God’s commands and if we don’t pursue it here, it’s far less likely to happen anywhere else.  In the next couple of weeks we are going to look specifically at the part moms and dads can play in this.  For now, though, let us commit ourselves to stepping up to the challenge, mustering up the courage (which comes when we really understand the Bible), and seeing to it that our families are honoring God in our circles so that everyone can see.  Let us commit ourselves to doing this with such intentionally and diligence that we are actually creating a culture everywhere we go that calls those around us to honor God in their own families.  Families are the key to unlocking God’s commands.  Let’s start turning.