“You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.” II Timothy 2:1-2 NRSV
Lillie Alma Pilgreen. Kathy McDonald. Barry Williamson. Pete Pilgreen. Jim Shafer. Earl Deal. I could go on, but I will spare you a few words this month. Most likely you do not recognize the aforementioned names, but do not feel guilty. They have no renowned claim to fame. None has experienced his or her name in lights. Not one has made significant contribution to sports, medicine, or politics, but each is special in some fashion. From my childhood to adulthood, the names, their stories, not to mention their influence, are etched indelibly in my mind. Each of these individuals is associated with cookies and juice, worksheets, flannel graft, quarterlies, or discussion time at some point over my 39 years of life. Two are still here while four have experienced their eternal reward coupled with the Father’s affirmation, “Well done!” You see, these men and women (and others like them) were kind to me, explained things to me, and showed me through their daily practice what God’s Word is really all about. From a pleasant “Good Morning” or “How has you week been?” to “Let me help you find that” or “Can I pray with you?” their faith and actions were permeated with integrity. You might say they were “Christians being Christian.” Anytime or place, their witness was real. It was not the kind of thing memorized from a sacred text or promoted under certain conditions; it was encouraging, engaging, and ever-present regardless of the person or circumstances. These children of God are/were a few of my teachers or key influences from my years spent in the classrooms and activities of my home church in Winterville.
I bring such figures of my past to the forefront this month as we continue to consider the second portion of Little Rock’s mission “to provide a place of Christian nurture and instruction.” Some might suggest that this language could be streamlined a bit and summarized with the phrase “a place of learning,” but I believe to do so is to lose something of the relationship-driven dynamic to who we are as Christians. Nurture and instruction belong together in our great task of discipleship. One of the grave dangers within Christianity has been a tendency to dwell too much upon the conveyance of information to the neglect of a deepening, meaningful faith. Herein lies the necessity of nurture in partnership with instruction. A helpful definition of nurture is “the process of caring for and encouraging the growth or development of someone or something.” This can be said of the parenting process, agriculture, business, pretty much any aspect of our world in which something begins as an embryo, seed, or idea. In order for healthy nurture to occur, it is of utmost importance for people to invest in that for which they are working toward the future. You might say that this is what made my relationships with my mentors in the faith so precious as a child, youth, and eventually young adult wrestling with the call to vocational ministry. Men and women, ordinary laity, Sunday school teachers, and ministry leaders took the time to use their passion for people and the Word of God to show me what Scripture means to faith and faith to everyday life.
The key to their effectiveness came through a willingness to “share in the process” of my faith development. That word “process” is important not only to our understanding of nurture in the general sense, but especially so when we think of what it means to grow in Christ. Dr. Robert Mulholland in his wonderful work Invitation to a Journey has rightly described what goes on with our faith in terms of something that is constant throughout the duration of our lives. It is beyond a set of teachings to which we offer assent or a place of perfection in the here and now similar to some of the Eastern religions. This faith is an ongoing work which occurs in community. The process dimension of our Christian development tends to run against the grain of our preference for instant gratification in today’s culture. Mulholland explains it as though we are standing before a vending machine waiting to make our selection. We insert our payment, press whichever button is associated with our desired purchase, and in a few seconds out pops that particular drink or snack. We want it right then and there, and heaven forbid something create a snag that hinders our refreshment. Is this not how we approach matters of faith? We want it quick, on our terms, and to our “taste.” The Christian faith however cannot and must not be restricted by our preference for “wanting something now.” “Nurture” embraces the fact that from inception to realization (which does not occur in this life) there is a requirement of time to pass.
It is within this “passage of time” that our growth toward Christ occurs. The encouraging part is the certainty that the time need not be spent in an empty space figuring the faith out for ourselves. Nurture calls for people who spend time with people, are patient with them, and provide an opportunity for them to explore the significance of Scripture, theology, and practice for themselves. This particular aspect of our responsibility as the Church focuses less upon just telling others “the correct answers” or trying to live the faith for them. It enables people to see, hear, feel, and experience Christ in ways that are meaningful to who they are as individuals created in the image of God. We as Christians have the opportunity to join in the process and encourage fellow sojourners as they make discoveries and grow. From such experiences other Christians are then equipped to perform the same function for new disciples and on the process continues.
Sharing in the Process,
The Reverend Kelley Smart