The Rev. Stephanie Hamilton – Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
In May, my daughter, Kiera, started her preparations to be a first time camper at Montlure. Because she has grown up with summers spent at Montlure camp, she knew that one of the items on the packing list would be a Bible. She began by surveying my shelf of Bibles. Over the years I have been given a small collection–all of them different in size and translation; some of them going back to my early childhood. She pulled the biggest one off of the shelf. It’s binding broken, loose pages sliding out of the cover, but protectively housed in a faux leather, zippered case. My NIV, Thompshon Chain reference Bible; a Christmas present from my father when I was sixteen. Oh how I loved that Bible evidenced by its Velveteen Rabbit-like appearance. As she unzipped the case and opened the Bible to look through it she caught my eye and asked, “Why are some of the words in red?” Not what I was expecting, her question caused me to pause as I figured out a straight forward answer. Answering my children’s questions gives me an opportunity to share my perspective with them. Sometimes, my answers are biased and other times, I am able to frame them with several points of view other than my own, hoping to broaden my children’s perspective as they are learning, taking in information, and forming their own framework.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9, known as the Great Shema was given as a framework for Israel. Today, it is the central prayer in the Jewish prayer book and often the first prayer taught to children which they recite with their right hand covering their eyes. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a lawyer that loving God with heart, soul, and mind is the greatest commandment and that is what the lawyer must do to inherit eternal life. For Israel, these instructions were paramount to God’s covenant with them. As they prepared to enter into the promise land, they were instructed to always remember who they were and from whom their blessings came. It is their story, a story of creation, promise, enslavement, deliverance, wandering, and salvation undergirded by a covenant of promise and love that they are to remember and embody.
The importance of the directive in verse four, to love the Lord with heart, soul, and might is highlighted with instructions to pass these words along to the children. Always and in all things love God. Reciting words and talking with children at home and away, when lying down at night, rising in the morning, hanging on door posts and gates, binding on hands and affixing on foreheads. Always and in all things love God and tell your children.
About ten years ago, I had the privilege of co-teaching the confirmation class. In one of our sessions, the parents of our confirmands were invited to join us so that their children could ask them questions about their faith journey. In order to break the ice and set the tone for the afternoon, I read this passage. I’m not sure that it broke the ice. After reading it, I looked up and saw concern on the parents faces, and I’m guessing it was because, that’s a whole lot of talking! About God. And yet, these days, it feels, more crucial to guide my children (not to mention all the children I interface with–be it the cross country team I coach, the students I encounter as a substitute teacher, our church community, or my children’s friends) to form a worldview rooted in God’s love which promotes unity in diversity, courage in the face of opposition, patience, and forebearance. A mighty tall order right now. Always in all things love God and tell your children.
So where to begin? For Israel, it began with a promise from God and reinforced with a covenant. God would bless and Israel would serve and love. For us it begins in baptism, claimed as the beloved children of God. There is nothing we can do to erase that beloved status and no circumstance can or will change it. Our story begins with love. At St. Mark’s we tell our children every Sunday that they are loved. We recite these words, “Remember God loves you……”, trusting that they will absorb them as they are growing into their beloved status.
This past spring I was made aware of how crucial it is for a child to know that he or is a loved child of God. I spent the day subbing for the language arts teacher at a local middle school. My take-away from that day was in this specific school (although I’ve seen a few others which are either a close second or even worse) the young people are receiving the message they don’t matter. One young man in particular captured my heart that day. He was in the first period journalism class and then came back during the last period of the day for his Language Arts class. It didn’t take long to learn that most of the students in the first period were assigned to journalism, not because they wanted to be there, but because they needed to take a class and that one was empty. They didn’t have a choice in their schedule. Not surprisingly, the students were not focused; most weren’t able understand the article they were assigned to read and summarize in their own words, let alone produce complete sentences. In order to maintain some form of classroom management, I was on my feet walking up and down the rows. Each time I made a pass by this young man, he would pipe up and say, “Miss, I’m a good boy.” The whole period I heard his mantra. “Miss, I’m a good boy.” Also, as I was moving about the classroom, I noticed that it wasn’t a typical classroom. In fact, it was designed for Home economics. Remember home ec? As a whole the room was a large space with three kitchen bays and two laundry bays. In order to keep the children out of the domestic areas, portable bulletin boards, filing cabinets, and book shelves divided the room. And as my young friend returned for class the last period of the day, I had an opportunity to sit next to him and work with him as he completed the assigned packet of worksheets. We were working on adverbs, as I recall. It took about fifteen minutes for him to find his papers, produce a pen, and begin to work. With each new section and each new page, his head would pop up and he would remind me that he was a good boy. Well given the environment, I have to admit, I am glad he had his mantra. Somebody needs to tell these children that they are good. Somebody needs to see them worthy of classroom spaces that encourage thought and curiosity. They need to be given choices and the freedom to explore what interests them. This isn’t a knock on the teacher or the school. I believe they are doing the best with what they have, but in this case, I wonder what the implied message is to the children.
It is important to begin shaping our children by giving them the message that they are beloved children of God. That is the beginning. Hopefully, as our children hear that they are loved, they will grow into adults who, having internalized this message, will make choices that reflect their beloved status. Choices which help to create a full life, overflowing with grace and generosity. As we take the time to answer their questions, listen to their thoughts, love them through their rough patches, and help them know how to recover from their mistakes and missteps we are reminding them who and whose they are. We are helping them grow into the story they’ve been given.
Dr. Kenda Dean, professor of youth ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of The God-bearing Life: the Art of Soul Tending in Youth Ministry was the first person I could find, who wrote and got published a book that didn’t take silly games and gimmicks and pass it off as youth ministry. She didn’t promote “fun events” as a youth program. She articulated the different models of youth ministry and used phrases like, “coming alongside of youth” and “journeying with them” when describing youth ministry. Her premise was that young people, who are growing and learning, are formulating deep theological thoughts and questions. Her approach to youth ministry is to charge the community of believers, the adults in the church, to walk with the youth and point out the road signs along the way helping them to interpret and connect their life experiences with God. Creating a community where space is given for questions and guidance as young people are making sense of God in the world around them.
On a personal note, I am thankful that this congregation is a community who remembers and upholds those promises made in baptism. Your willingness to send children to camp is one way you come alongside of your youth and children. My three children came home from camp this summer, tired, but happy. It was fun to hear their stories and comparisons of their individual experiences. And on Tuesday, Aidan, my oldest will attend Triennium with five thousand Presbyterian youth from all over the United States. It will be one more environment where he will encounter adults who want him to know he is a beloved child of God and will challenge him to find ways to share the gifts God has given him. Always and in all things love God and by the way, tell your children.