It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the advantages in being a part of a smaller church family. When you are not as big, you can go to lunch together after worship and enjoy the fun of taking turns saying something about yourselves that not many people know. That bright idea to make the most of our lunch together, was Dr. John Weaver’s, whom we’ve met only recently, but in every interaction has proven himself to be an expert in bonding the hearts of God’s children together --- a “people expert extraordinaire” you could say --- the sort of humble guy who I'm thinking would be a great president of a college.
Another advantage only for smaller congregations is an optional way to open an assembly that I believe to be Miracle Grow for the kind of intimacy that builds a healthy church culture, so to speak. I’d seen it only once before in 2017 when I was on a road trip with a sister-in-Christ and we’d stopped in to visit a congregation in north Seattle, Washington. When it first started unfolding, I confess I initially had thoughts around “this is going to waste a lot of time”. It was not until I saw the end result, I’d come around 180 degrees to thinking “this may very well be one of the best uses of a Wednesday night gathering I’ve ever seen”. Likewise, before the Bible class portion of our Sunday morning gathering at the Mariner Boulevard Church of Christ , Dr. John, with sincere interest, softly asked family by family, “How are you all doing?” “What should we pray for your family?” and when the whole room had told what was really making their heart heavy, or grateful or at peace, he asked “Anyone else we should mention?” and proceeded to use the notes he’d just taken to approach the throne of God together on what mattered most at present to this little flock.
The Mariner Boulevard Church of Christ is also smart to be in touch during the week via email. Included in the email the week we visited was an introduction of Mark and I by the sharing of our website NomadsYouAndI.com. This put us on the fast track to a better position to talk more deeply to our brothers and sisters about things that would encourage them. The email also communicated what Biblical texts that were going to be studied along with the questions that would be asked during Bible class. Three cheers for good communication!
After our opening prayer, there was something else John did before he started presenting the Bible study material he had prepared --- something that we had not seen anywhere else: He asked if anyone had any burning questions that happened to surface in the course of their reading the Biblical texts in preparation for class. As a teacher myself, who is perhaps sometimes too focused on “getting through the material”, I found this an inspiring way to put the interests of those in class first, and thus meeting students “where they are”, so that we, as teachers, can more effectively meet their needs, instead of leaving it to chance. I might add as well, that during class John invited and welcomed everyone’s comments, and after they shared their thoughts, he’d say something one way or another along the lines of “Thank you for those insights”. There was a feeling throughout class of not being rushed, so that there was time for everyone’s comments. It was no wonder that so many were engaged and had so much to contribute!
We visited with the Mariner Boulevard Church of Christ two Sundays in a row, and it was on the second and final Sunday that I couldn’t help but take a deep breath and smile to myself the moment it was announced that we’d be exploring the parables in Luke 15 around the rejoicing that happens when things and people that were once lost, are finally found. It seemed exceptionally providential, given that I had not yet determined what specific theme I’d write about for this special congregation. Now I knew. It was suddenly obvious. For it was just the week before that a sister around my age whom I had just met that morning, had from the bottom of her heart, shared with the congregation what pained her most and it happened to be the very thing that pains my heart the most. She’s given me permission to share here that after class we’d held each other tight, and dripped tears together as we said aloud our hardest parts, then confessed the realities of how God comforts us every day so that we can keep putting one foot in front of the other.
It was meant to be. I would write about what many have found to be the heaviest burden a believer can bear, and that is loving those who are, at present, rejecting both God and in turn, we who love them best, despite the decades of daily sacrifices, years of loving, spiritual instruction, and the ensuring of every spiritual advantage a nurturing parent can give a child. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard such parents express in this way or that the following sentiment, “It would have been easier to have buried my child’s dead body, knowing that I’d be with them throughout all eternity, than to go through life watching them destroy themselves spiritually by throwing away everything God did and we did for them”.
Here’s the story that we studied at Mariner Boulevard that morning --- a story Jesus told of a son who went into self-destruction mode, but in the end does what every parent of a prodigal child begs of God to be how their story too will one day happily end. My comments between the Biblical text are bracketed:
And He said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them.[Freewill here is a God-given, inalienable human right, and given the fact that the father in this parable represents the Heavenly Father, clearly, there is no amount of instruction, skill, or love that removes freewill from another human, not even our own children] And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country,[...and it always will] and he began to be impoverished. [“The way of the transgressor is hard” Proverbs 13:15] So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. [Including, by the way, his father back home who loved him more than anyone else--- even enough to let him hit rock bottom, rather than enabling him by sending care packages or otherwise interacting with him as if he’d already repented] But when he came to his senses, [Note that any time you or I “leave the Father”, we have “lost our senses” and are “out of our mind” for the craziness of that most illogical choice a person can make] he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! [This loved son was dead spiritually, and was about to be “just as dead” physically!] I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, [Behold, hear here what genuine, humble repentance sounds like…] “Father, I [Not “You”, or anyone else, for there is no blame shifting in any way when it comes to genuine repentance] have sinned against heaven, [primarily, but also…] and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; [He sees with clarity the gravity of his sin] make me as one of your hired men.”’ [He recalls the mercy in the character of His Father, and the grace in the character of His Father is indeed exactly as he remembers] So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him [Do you know, Prodigal child, how every day, in grief, your parents look out the window, so to speak, and prayerfully beg, looking with hopeful anticipation, for your return?] and felt compassion for him, [“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us” Ephesians 2:4] and ran [So eager is your God to have you back, that He runs toward you. Run into His arms already, for when you “Draw near to God … He will draw near to you” James 4:8 ] and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, [The same humble sentiments he had practiced, still just as humble, even in the presence of this exceptionally favorable reception] ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; [He was still just as aware and honest about the depths of his wickedness] I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ [So joyful is the prodigal’s father, that he’s not even given the opportunity to make his next suggestion of being hired as a servant] But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was [spiritually] dead and has come to life again; he was [spiritually] lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, [I wonder who had picked up his brother’s slack? Had this older brother been doing the work of two sons all this time? The text does not say, but such is often the case in these situations, and still the following lesson remains the same…] and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; [In John’s class, so that we too could examine our hearts for any such pride or selfishness we might not be aware of, asked at this point, “Who is the person, or kind of person, who you don't want God to be close to? Who is that with you?” John then reminded us of the value of seeing souls from God’s perspective] and his father came out and began pleading with him. [Just as God still pleads with us today to joyfully receive back the repentant, even in cases where they have caused us the most pain and suffering we’ve ever experienced throughout our lives] But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours [Rather than this kind of jealousy, selfishness or resentment, God wants us to feel what He feels upon the repentance of a lost soul, and that is complete joy!] came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, [May we never lose sight of the innumerable blessings of always being with the Father, and how our obedience has prevented all needless suffering from sin’s painful, often lingering consequences!] and all that is mine is yours. [The blessings given to our repentant brethren do not take from our own, in fact, their return, means more blessings for you and I as well, by way of their comradery and partnership laboring henceforth together to the glory of God.] But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead [Imagine yourself in your repentant brother’s shoes, so you can feel the relief of what this means for his future both in this life and in the eternal one to come, and “rejoice with those who rejoice”! (Romans 12:15) ] and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’” [And you have your lifelong childhood companion back!]
I’d like to mention that something beautiful happened while my sister and I the week before were in the moment of essentially holding one another’s hearts. Another sister walked past us while we were deeply engaged and said softly to me, “We love her very much”. In other words, “she is in good hands here”. I have no doubt, Mariner Boulevard Church of Christ! No doubt whatsoever!
I’d like to conclude this entry with a few ideas around how a parent can endure the pain of coexisting with the reality of adult children who live in rebellion to God. We are all so different, that not everything I suggest will resonate with you, but perhaps something will.
If you have an adult child who has thus far rejected God’s love and wisdom, you could gather the courage to tell the truth about anything that has been left unsaid for the good of their soul, either in person or by way of a compassionate, forthright, thorough letter that includes everything you want to say and an invitation to speak in person about their response to what you’ve written, or to write back. You can ask people to pray for your child, and welcome any intervention others are willing to make on their behalf. You can treat your lost child the way you would want to be treated by refraining from taking vengeance on them, for example by unnecessarily humiliating them by continually sharing with others all their deeds of darkness that so pain you. You can refrain from unnecessarily putting yourself through the excruciating experience of following their social media. You can allow Jesus to remain their Savoir by not attempting to bear their sin or through (the mistake I see most often) blaming yourself, your congregation or anyone else for their making their own unthinkable choices. You can refrain from twisting scripture to accommodate the behaviors of your child, but instead love God first and stand firm that He still means every word He says. Only in this way can you “Keep the light on” for them. You can make it easier for your child to return by not funding or in any other way enabling their rebellion. You can cry it out whenever you want. You can write Psalms of lament to express your heart to God. You could fast and pray on their behalf on a regular basis. You can use the experience to better relate to how your own sin hurts the heart of God so that you can continue to grow an aversion to darkness. You can also accept the things you cannot change and create a positive outlook by taking every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5), dwelling only on things that are “... true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8). You can fix your eyes on Jesus instead of this great loss. You can share the wisdom from God that your child rejected with all the other souls around you, who are hungry to take to heart all that you have to offer and find you inspiring.
So what can you do to support a soul living this nightmare? You could reach out to someone’s rebellious child and see they’d be open to getting together, or talking to you on the phone or any other way you can be of influence. You could add their child’s name to your prayer list. You could introduce the hurting parents to other encouraging Christians you think would be a kind of balm for their soul.
The last thing anyone wants to do is add insult to this most painful of injuries by assuming that failure to train children is the root cause of all spiritual departures. Although every parent, in hindsight, has some things they’d wished they’d done better, I would suggest that you can encourage the parents of a rebellious child by refraining from saying things along the lines of “Well, if parents would just train their children in the way they should go, they would not depart from it” when the scriptures are full of examples like Absalom who rejected David’s wisdom 1 Samuel 15-20 and the children of Israel whom God called “My son, My firstborn” in Exodus 4:22, yet they rejected their own perfect Heavenly Father’s wisdom. We would do better to acknowledge that many of the most attentive, faithful, wise, conscientious parents have had children who rejected God’s wisdom.
Is Proverbs 22:6 guaranteeing that if parents train up a child in the way he should go, it is impossible for him to depart from it? How many examples inside and outside of the scriptures do we have to witness to see that it is not a guarantee? For, just as some children who have been “beaten with a rod” actually have died, despite the fact that Proverbs 23:13 says “If you beat him with a rod he will not die”, likewise, some parents have very diligently and lovingly trained “up a child in the way he should go”, yet still he departs from it, as in the aforementioned case of the nation Israel, Absalom, and others. These are not evidence that the scriptures are in any way faulty. These realities coexist because the Proverbs are in fact maxims, truisms or principles, and in these two proverbs, teach parents the principle of training and disciplining their children, to give them every opportunity to “not depart from it”, and can truly “live”.
As we go through life and encounter challenges that cause us to look around to gauge the wisdom of others to decide who to turn to for advice, I’d encourage you to consider not so much what someone’s children has chosen to do with their own free will, but how much a brother or sister has used his or her own free will to love and follow God. For this maxim is also often true: "...in abundance of counselors there is victory" (Proverbs 24:6).
Mariner Boulevard Church of Christ
11025 Ripley St
Spring Hill, FL 34608