During my time of seventh-grade bullying, one girl was the primary cause. Supposedly a close friend, she instigated the incidents. Over the years I needed to learn the hard way that I couldn’t trust her. Originally I confided in her, trusting her friendship. Then she betrayed me. Repeatedly. Because she had been my first friend in my new school, it was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that she was acting as my enemy. Finally my mom got me to see, after far too many times of being betrayed, that I couldn’t trust my friend. Then my parents taught me the even harder lesson of loving difficult people by faith.
Loving difficult people by faith.
Loving by faith initially seems to contradict our definition of love. When we think of all the ways we use the word “love,” we usually associate it with pleasure. We love pizza. I love chocolate cheesecake, especially when I make it with Kahlua. Mmmmm. We love great books and great movies. And, of course, we love people. We love all the special people in our lives.
But what about the difficult people in our lives? Don’t we all have difficult people we love? And, if we’re honest, aren’t we difficult to love at times too? My parents taught me the importance of praying for difficult people. But here’s the most challenging part. We’re not allowed to simply pray that they stop being annoying or sinning against us. We need to pray for them in a way that cares about their needs being met. That meant I needed to pray that my frenemy would be happy, that life would go well for her, and that she would feel loved. That meant I could never complain about her to our friends.
God uses prayer to create love.
In his Love is a Feeling to be Learned, Walter Trobischer explains that the feeling of love follows the actions of love. Not the other way around. Infatuation can come first. Or an intense, sudden best friendship. But the feeling of real love follows our learning to love unconditionally, as God loves us. It also comes after we learn to love by faith. My parents gave me a tiny book by Bill Bright that changed my life and relationships: How to Love by Faith. This tiny book taught me how to trust the Holy Spirit to give me his love, as I prayed for the person who bothered me so much. What a revolutionary, biblical concept!
Prayer for others changes us.
To me what was most amazing about this process was that God used it to heal me. He took away my anger, my desire for vengeance, and even much of my pain. As I really prayed for this girl, I began to notice the ways she was suffering and saw that she was lashing out because of her own pain. My changed heart allowed her heart to change–slowly. I didn’t notice the change in her as quickly as I noticed it in myself. But God changed both of us, through my prayers.
Over the years, God has called me back to that lesson many times. Because I forget. When people act nasty toward me, my automatic reaction can be to feel hurt and angry. But each time God brings me back to his lesson of loving difficult people by faith, he brings healing. To me and to the other person.
Make kids feel needed
Even these days, most kids probably grow up helping their parents or their siblings in certain ways. But probably not to the same extent that was true of their parents or grandparents. We no longer have a dozen kids per family, needing the older ones to care for the younger ones while we tend to the babies, as my dad’s parents did. The same tends to be true at church. Grown-ups do everything. So how do we develop our kids’ sense of who they are and their importance in the body of Christ? How do we make kids feel needed in the church?
Needs in tiny churches
The tiny church I grew up in–a church plant–was so little that they needed to rely on kids for important roles. I was eleven when I heard my parents discussing the need for a teacher for our first-, second-, and third-grade Sunday school class. I’m sure my dad was trying to persuade my already heavily committed mom to add that to her list. But since I loved that age group and planned to train to be a teacher, that position sounded great to me. So, I volunteered.
My parents were startled. They first responded with the obvious, “Oh, you’re not old enough. And you have to have made profession of faith publicly in the church to be a Sunday school teacher.”
Not allowing kids to feel pushed aside
“What does that involve? Can’t I do that?”
“It would mean going to the church council and telling them that you are ready to go public for Jesus and make your membership official. You’d have to tell them that you understand the teachings of the church and believe they’re biblical. Then you’d be an adult member.”
“Sure. I can do that. How? When?”
Although I thought my parents were startled, their reaction was nothing compared to that of the church elders and deacons. Stunned is more like it. They asked me all the questions that were typical in that day. The creeds, the catechism, and what Jesus meant to me personally. They also asked me what made me decide to make profession of faith right at that time. Then they sort of looked at each other as though they didn’t know what to do next.
“How old did you say you were?” one asked.
On hearing I was only eleven, they asked how many months till my birthday. They agreed that I could make my public profession as soon as I turned twelve. Though I thought the waiting was silly, I was happy to be accepted. I felt validated in my faith and very adult because they were going to let me teach Sunday school.
The blessings of feeling needed
Teaching that class was much harder than I had expected. First-graders can hardly read, and third-graders are already good readers. Teaching to that range of kids stretched my creativity. Ten to thirteen kids that age at once can be a handful. But I was so energetic and eager to prove myself up for the job that I figured it out.
I remember having so much fun doing things like big cut-outs for the walls to encourage attendance. One season each child put up a squirrel and got to add a nut for each Sunday of attendance. I was so eager to share Jesus with these little kids that each Saturday I even pedaled my bike to the house of any child who had missed class the week before to tell them we had missed them.
God’s mission moving forward
Not surprisingly, the class prospered. And I prospered. The class grew in size and in unity, and I grew in motivation to learn the Bible better and to learn better ways of teaching. My most important takeaway was my intense sense of belonging that I gained from being needed by the church. 1 Corinthians 12 gives us a detailed description of the body of Christ and each of us needing to use our gifts. As adults, we know how important using our gifts is. But what about our kids?
Kids who are needed in the church feel motivated to stay in the church.
When I hear people lament about the difficulty of so many young people leaving the church, I often think back to the time the church allowed me to become its youngest Sunday school teacher. The church’s accepting and enfolding me early actually gave me protection against negative peer pressure during my teen years. I had found my place. I was a Christ follower–a part of the body of Christ. No one could convince me otherwise.
When my kids were that age, we encouraged them to help with nursery, the church library, Vacation Bible School, playing instruments for church. Those were encouraging experiences for them as they felt needed and got to know godly adults they were working with. Just think how much better it would be if we as church bodies could make it a priority to incorporate young people into as many different ministries as possible.
How to make kids feel needed? Find ways to use their gifts.
Starting young with growing roots deep into Christ.
I love this photo of the boy sitting in the huge tree. The enormous tree seems to be wrapping its arms around him and bringing him contentment. A child this age can’t understand the root system of a huge tree like this. Nor does he know the concept of a child growing roots deep into Christ. But he can know where he feels safe.
Rooting ourselves deeply in Christ makes us feel safe in the arms of God, as this boy feels in the tree. And it can start so early. Praying with a baby who is fussing for a reason we can’t understand. Praying with a toddler over something he feels terrible about. Little ones can learn that Jesus answers their prayers in amazing ways and that he is their ultimate safety.
Writing a talk the other day, I thought about how our children began putting down their roots into Christ at an early age. Inspired by Trent & Smalley’s book The Blessing, we gave one of our daughters the symbol of a young tree. It symbolized how we saw her in Christ, as a child who loved Jesus and sought to live for him. At her young age it was impossible to know all the fruit God would allow her to bear. But we saw the beginnings. We gave her the symbol of a very young apple tree and found a real one to take her picture standing near.
The passage we chose for her was Psalm 1, with an emphasis on verse 3: “That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.”
As an adult growing roots deep into Christ.
That verse has realized its promise. We’ve seen our child become an adult woman who has an active prayer life and active ministry to the many people God has placed in her life.
Another favorite passage that now fits her and is a challenge for each of us is Colossians 2: 6-7— “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (NIV).
Remembering the traumas she experienced in her young adult life, I am so grateful that her rootedness in Christ allowed her stay safe and know she was in the arms of Jesus. Even when she wondered what in the world God was doing in allowing her to get so sick. Multiple times even when she nearly died.
Growing roots deep into Christ moved her from being a child who played church–preaching to and baptizing dolls and stuffed animals–to a grown up who preaches to and baptizes real people. When she was four years old, we had no clue that it was more than play. But God knew. And he grew those roots and built her up in him.
[photo by martha-dominguez-de-gouveia-567149-unsplash]
My high school years became a time of basking in God’s love. Primarily because of my Dad’s equipping me for ministry.
During my time of being bullied, Dad had encouraged me that God was growing me through my difficulties. He was right. But it was NOT fun. I had obeyed him but had not been basking in God’s love.
Dad told me so many stories of Bible characters and other Christians growing through persecution that I started to wonder if that was the main way God worked. I remember asking Dad if trials were the only times God grew his children quickly.
His answer stuck with me–Christians grow most dramatically in their relationship with Jesus Christ both 1) during great difficulties and 2) during times of intense ministry.
In junior high I experienced the first kind of growth. During high school I experienced the second. The principle is the same.
Both kinds of spiritual growth require unprecedented reliance on Jesus.
I needed to talk to Jesus regularly–telling him how needy I was–in order to grow closer to him.
Feeling persecuted or panicky inspires most of us to pray. The same panic can come from jumping into a new ministry we do not feel prepared for. It can spur us to pray moment by moment.
The ministry my dad showed me God was calling me to in my high school was simple:
Tell people about Jesus. Consistently.
Attending a public high school was a huge bonus for me in learning the practice of talking about Jesus to those who didn’t know him. Modular scheduling–which allowed students huge amounts of unscheduled “study time”–was another huge bonus in the opportunities it allowed me.
But developing that practice took time and was scary–always.
Eventually, after consistently talking to people about my faith and seeing so many new friends come to know Jesus, I began to see time alone at a table with a new acquaintance as a divine appointment. It was a time to talk to her about Jesus.
But it was still scary. Always. So I developed the habit of prayer.
Melanie Redd puts it so well: “Praying boldly boots me out of that stale place of religious habit into authentic connection with You.” She is so right. When we are in a scary situation and hoping that we choose the right words, prayer can be the only life preserver we see.
And praying for help in daily situations allows us to see that God’s love for us transcends boundaries of place and time. God answers those prayers and affirms our relationship with him. He allows us to bask in his love. I’m convinced this is the principle that allows Paul to tell us “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11).
Feeling completely loved and affirmed by God can make us feel as though we are floating on a lake in the sunshine on an unsinkable inner-tube.
The crazy thing is that we are always completely loved and affirmed by God. We just often don’t feel it.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8: 38-39 NIV]
“Fartie Artie!” taunted Arthur’s classmates countless times a day after his tragic mistake.
The story was that one day when home alone after school, he had been playing with matches and accidentally caught the curtains on fire. He had burned his home down. And now the bullies taunting him would not stop.
Arthur was two or three years older than I was, so I had been unaware of his existence before this event. But now I continued to notice taunting classmates evacuating whatever table he sat down at for lunch.
My second-grade self felt horrible for Arthur in his shunning. I worried to my mom about it. I was afraid Arthur would never feel he belonged again.
She asked me a question I had never thought about: “What do you think Jesus would do if he were a student at your school?”
I grudgingly said, “He would probably go sit with him.”
But Jesus would have been a boy and would have probably known Arthur.
“But I don’t even know him.”
Mom agreed and was quiet.
Then a bit later, “Do you think it would be okay with Jesus if I took my little sister with me?”
Mom assured me that she thought Jesus would approve. Fortunately, my first-grade sister was good-natured and very willing to accompany me on this mission.
The next day when we sat down across from Arthur and said, “Hi,” he ignored us except to move as far away from us as possible. This was NOT part of our plan.
My mom assured me that it did not mean our joining him was the wrong thing to do. She encouraged us to give him time. So we did.
I’m not actually sure that Arthur ever spoke to us. After all, girls our age definitely had cooties. Everyone knew that.
But after several days of our odd lunches, a couple of my friends joined me and my sister. Later a couple of his friends joined him.
After a few days of our segregated groups eating at the same table, I decided our task was finished. I never noticed bullies taunting or isolating him again.
Maybe that would have happened naturally in the same number of days—just because kids would have gotten sick of teasing him. We will never know.
I certainly never had a chance to tell Arthur or anyone else that the reason we were joining him is that we were trying to be like Jesus. They will never know.
But my mom’s question for me and her quiet encouragement of me and my sister in our mission taught us a lot about the character of Jesus.
She taught us that Jesus does not shun people who feel like losers. Jesus does not taunt people who really mess up. He loves us all and wants us to show his love to those around us—especially when they mess up.
Who needs tradition?
It’s boring to do everything just like our parents and grandparents. Besides, it will make our children think that Christianity is just a bunch of empty habits, and they’ll reject it. Right? Or is creating good traditions possible?
At one point, our girls went through a period of rebelling against church attendance. And Satan certainly did his best to reinforce their rebellion. Lost shoes, people not feeling well, hair that seemed to snarl worst on Sunday mornings. General crabbiness.
Then we countered with a special tradition a pastor had suggested: a yummy, sweet breakfast only on Sundays.
Coffeecake actually helped. Who would have guessed? One friend calls it “Fighting Satan with cinnamon rolls.”
How can we choose our family’s habits—or traditions—intentionally—to establish what my friend Jeff Fisher calls “the scaffolding of our faith”? And how do we choose actions that will reinforce in us and our children our love for the Lord Jesus and his centrality in our lives?
As we think about building this spiritual scaffolding, we need to remember that scaffolding is not fun, nice-looking, or desirable in itself, only in what it allows us to build. We don’t want our children unhappy. Still, habits—even excellent habits—can be uncomfortable at times, until we grow into them.
For example, family devotions after dinner with very young children can make everyone crabby at times. As can prayer time with the entire family before the first person goes to bed, delaying bedtime. And asking a child for a prayer request each morning before school may feel pointless when a child’s daily answers sometimes hardly vary—“I don’t know. That I have a good day.”
Sharing some of our fears and inadequacies with our children and asking them to pray for us is scary.
Because we may not want them to know that we are feeling emotionally fragile that day. Or that a parent’s job is in danger. It might even seem likely to limit their trust in us as parents.
Yet God calls us to share with our children and others around us the ways he is working in our lives.
He is not terribly concerned that we might not like feeling vulnerable.
But he is concerned about our showing him as the surpassingly awesome Lord of our lives!
And he wants us to share with our children how he is answering our prayers. As we think back over ways God has grown our faith one stone at a time, we are called to be intentional in choosing our family’s traditions in ways that help grow that faith.
Creating good traditions is good for each family member.
If, like me, you grew up in a Christian household, you may have traditions that blessed you. You may have already adopted them. Or you might plan to start once life feels a little less hectic. Or you may not have spiritual traditions to choose from. No matter our history, God calls each of us to be intentional about faith with our children.
I encourage you to choose one new spiritual tradition to establish in your household.