A year ago last May I was here in Chile on a mission trip.
After making connections with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in North America and meeting Raquel from UBACH, I and 11 students and one translator flew into Santiago and then on to Temuco to work at the Fundacion Para Amar, a home for girls who have been court-ordered removed from their homes for reasons of extreme poverty or abuse.
I planned this mission trip for my own students, college kids, most of whom had never before been overseas, because I wanted them to learn the importance of serving those who are less fortunate than they.
And also because I wanted them to experience another culture and another climate (and some of them were not too happy I brought them to Chile in the winter when it was cold!).
I brought them to Chile because I knew it would change the way they see the world and change the way they see God.
Indeed, after our work at the girls’ home, I overheard one of my students say to another student on the plane on the flight back to the United States, “My Major is Childhood Education, but after being with the girls in Temuco, I may add Social Work as a Minor.”
And lives were changed.
For the past year, we have written to the girls in Temuco and they too have written to us. With me on this trip I brought money that our translator wanted to have delivered to the home as a financial donation and I brought a gift for one of the girls that I became friends with. The background of my computer screen is the group picture we took of all my students and all the girls and the workers in the home. I have two framed pictures in my home of me with the girls. It breaks my heart that I do not have time on this short trip to fly down to Temuco and see my darling girls and the Tias who work with them again. I miss them so!
And it breaks my heart that such beautiful children of God could be abandoned or abused or neglected by their parents.
So for this final sermon today, I want to talk in part, about parenthood.
Ministering to children and youth is important, but it is equally important to minister to their parents. We must look at families wholistically.
Parenting is hard work!
Last week I had a Sunday School party at my home for a class of parents with young children. When I told them I was coming down here to spend time with you at this conference, they said, “Tell them raising children is hard and the parents need to be ministered to too!”
In a staff meeting at my church the other day, we were reading the Bible and the subject of infertility came up.
We began talking about married couples in our church who have struggled with issues of infertility and the names just kept coming.
Issues of infertility or miscarriages among couples is a secret pain that many couples bear alone because it is rarely addressed or ministered to in the United States.
And yet issues of infertility affect over 6 million people in the United States and I can’t imagine the number of people worldwide.
The loss of motherhood is a deep seeded grief among many women that we as ministers and servants of the Gospel must be sensitive to. It is often a hidden pain that does not need to be suffered alone. Rather, we need to help our parents by creating an environment where it is safe to talk about their stories of infertility. And in doing so, we need to connect people so that in community they can feel love and not have to grieve alone.
In addition to infertility, the challenge of parenting of a new infant brings its own complications and fears as parents’ lives change and they learn to live with a different schedule and to act in a different role. There is a new financial strain on young families as well and they must learn to manage their money differently.
As children get older, it becomes even more challenging as parents make decisions regarding technology for their children and cell phones and facebook and internet use and movies that are appropriate to see.
Just last week I read an article in the paper on “sexting” where children in some cases are harassed and in other cases willingly participate in texting sexually explicit phrases and pictures to one another. The article discussed the role of the schools in disciplining children for after-hour cell phone use and the sexual bullying of young girls that often results.
But I would ask, what is the role of the church? How can we help parents teach and protect their children?
And when those children become teenagers, and they begin experimenting with drugs and sex, how can we help parents grieve their children’s loss of innocence and support them in educating their children on the dangers of certain behavior and the potential consequences of their actions?
I’m embarrassed to tell you the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. The Center for Disease control says that one-third of girls in the US get pregnant before the age of 20. Teenpregnancy.org states that there are "750,000 teen pregnancies annually. Eight in ten of these pregnancies are unintended and 81 percent are to unmarried teens."
According to an article written in 2007 about teen pregnancy in Chile, the global rate of teen pregnancy is projected that out of 1000 female teenagers 53 will become pregnant, and the rate for Latin America and the Caribbean at 76 out of every 1,000 girls.
We must teach our teens to respect their bodies, practice safe sex and engage in healthy age-appropriate relationships, and we must help our parents to instill these values in their children. And for those teens who do get pregnant, we must help them and their parents make wise decisions about keeping the baby or adoption options, and above all we must provide support for the young girl and the boy who may now be parents themselves.
And finally, even with older parents, they still need the church. How can we help parents who are experiencing what we call in the U.S. “empty nest syndrome?” When two people have spent 18 years functioning in one capacity as parent to a child and all of the sudden the child is out of the house and off at school, how do we help parents transition into the next phase of their lives?
Ministering to children and youth is not just about the kids, it’s about the parents too. Creating a vision of ministering to children changes the way we do programming entirely and it even changes the way we think as a church.
I was speaking to a man yesterday whose church is in the reconstruction phase after the earthquake destroyed their building. And he said he realized that the church has not purchased anything yet for the children. To him and his church I would say, it’s not too late!
And part of why it’s not too late is because ministering to children, youth and their families is first of all a mindset, a shift in vision, a re-focusing of our theology. If the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these, then it is time that we begin teaching them, so that they may in turn teach us.
You may feel overwhelmed by what you have heard at this conference. There are resources and testimonies of what people are doing in other churches. So I would say to you, start small. If you have Sunday school for children, that’s a good place to begin. Now move forward. Make sure you are teaching the Bible to children in a way they can understand that matches their brain development stages. When that is strong, add something else. Maybe provide worksheets for children to work on during the worship service. Or maybe add a special point in your service designed just for children where you sing a song they like or maybe your pastor gives a short children’s sermon. Baby steps. (Pun intended).
But before you worry about programming you must make sure that we have an attitude change. We must value children and youth as members of our spiritual community. We must recognize that Christ valued children. He wanted them near him, he wanted to teach them and he wanted to heal them.
So too must our ministries be wholistic. A child who is hungry and hasn’t had breakfast or lunch cannot hear from his teacher at school how to practice division in mathematics. Similarly, a child in poverty who is hungry and hasn’t eaten all day cannot hear about God’s love. We must meet the children’s needs both spiritually, physically and emotionally.
We need an attitude change. We must recognize that children have many things to teach us about God and if they are given the tools to think about God and re-imagine the biblical stories, then indeed they will teach us about God.
When I was at the Fundacion Para Amar in Temuco last year, the first night we were there the director of the home asked the girls if they would like to say anything to the North Americans who came to visit before we said grace and began our evening meal. Predictably, the 18 year old in the group, offered a gracious welcome to us. She’s been at the home over 14 years and while she is old enough to leave the home, she chooses to stay and live there while she goes to college. Her name is Karen and she wants to be a teacher. Awesome. We nodded our appreciations to her and smiled and began to sit down to eat with another voice piped up. A seven-year-old girl Maria, raised her hand and said she would like to say something. And as her words were being translated from Spanish into English, I realized that this small child was welcoming us, twelve adults from the United States whom she didn’t even yet know, into her home and to her table. Amazing.
Several days later we visited a large private school in Temuco started by missionaries from the United States a hundred years ago. The students there, kindergarteners through seniors in high school, wore uniforms and spoke of going to college to study to be doctors and teachers and directors and engineers. The difference in financial advantage and privilege between the private school and the children’s home was overwhelming. “Next time you come to Chile,” the director of the school told us when she found out where we had come to serve, “you should come work with us.”
“No,” I thought, no. Next time I come, I will go back to the home of the girls whose families don’t want them, who have a much lower chance of breaking free of the chain of poverty and abuse and teen pregnancy. I will go back to where little Maria, despite all her misfortune knew the love of God and neighbor well enough to speak before forty people and solemnly and earnestly welcome them to her humble home.
The people who worked at the children’s home knew that they needed to do two things, take care of the neglected children – feed them, clothe them and give them shelter, and they also needed to tell them about God’s love.
We must do the same thing. We must teach our children and youth about God’s love and in turn be taught by them!
In Luke 10:25-37 we read the story of the Good Samaritan and I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with that story. We know that it was an enemy of the Jews who ended up helping the beaten man lying on the side of the road. And we translate that into our modern cultures. For us it the United States perhaps it is an Iraqi who came to the aid of the beaten American man. Or perhaps it is a Muslim who came to help the beaten Christian lying in the road.
But what if it doesn’t have to be an enemy who comes to our aid. What if it is anyone we consider an “outsider.” We have lots of good ways of making people out to be different, to be other, to be apart from us, to be an outsider.
So what if the person who came to help the Jewish man lying on the side of the road was a child?
Jesus is always asking us to re-evaluate the way we understand God’s love and mercy. Jesus is always asking us to re-draw the lines around our circles so that they are big enough to include a Samaritan, big enough to include children. Jesus asks the disciples and the Pharisees and the people crowded around him to change the way they think about life and culture and God time and time again.
Be transformed, Paul says, by the renewing of your minds. Paul merely writes what Jesus already asks of us. And just when we think we’ve got this whole church things down, he asks us to rethink it again.
And today God’s asking you to rethink your theology about children, youth and their parents. It has been a wonderful weekend. You’ve heard many things and I have too thanks to Raquel. And now it is time for you to return to your churches and you have the choice… You have the choice to challenge them to re-think what they have always thought about ministering to children, youth and their families or you have the choice to leave what you’ve heard here in the seminary at Santiago.
The choice is yours. Choose wisely. Choose children.