March 13, 2018
Before the church service began, we could tell by the muted noises up front that it would be a special one. Little ones dressed up in their best outfits, parents doing their best to shush them and keep them calm for just a few more minutes. Little girls with pink bows in their hair. Baby boys with miniature suits.
Several times a year, our church has a Child Dedication ceremony – an opportunity for parents to commit to raising their children in a godly, Bible-focused, Christ-centered home. It’s a sweet, tender moment, a solemn vow that these parents are taking. And for some of us, it’s a poignant reminder of our own children, and our own commitment not too long ago to raise them to know and love the Lord.
This brief ceremony is also for us, the Church Family. The pastor asks us if we will commit to walking beside these moms and dads on their parenting journey. If we will encourage them when the days get hard. If we will mentor them and counsel them as they seek wisdom. If we will pray for them and support them and partner with them along the way, doing everything within our power to help their children come to a personal relationship with Jesus.
Yes, we say, with enthusiastic agreement. Yes, we commit to stand with these families and their beautiful young children in the days and years to come. Yes, we promise to help them keep the vows that they have made today. Yes, we do!
Each child here today is loved, of course. Treasured and adored. There is one brown-haired little boy, however, who is especially striking. His dark eyes are alert, focusing first on the lights, then staring at his father’s face, taking it all in. His parents have prayed for him years before he was born, begging God for the gift of this child. And here they are today, holding this beautiful baby in their arms, hearts overflowing with gratitude for this miraculous answer to their hearts’ deepest longing.
As the child grows, he is full of life and curiosity and wonderment. Everything interests him. His eagerness to learn seems boundless, and his parents and Sunday School teachers can barely keep up with his questions and his zeal. Why did God let Adam and Eve sin? Where does a baby’s soul come from? How will our foster child with brain damage know about Jesus? He is not afraid to think through the hard questions.
His competitive spirit shines through in our church’s Bible-memory program for children. He and his best friend quickly memorize all the verses in their book – twice! – before the year is over, causing the Children’s Pastor to scramble to find more challenging passages for them to learn. At the end of the year, he wins award after award for his diligence and hard work!
He plays on the kids’ soccer team, one of the many ministries the church provides for children and their families. At each of the practices and before each game, when the coach asks his players for a volunteer to pray, this kid is always the first one with his hand raised. He is not afraid to speak the name of Jesus. With his vibrant personality and spiritual passion, his parents and coaches wonder in amazement if maybe he will grow up to become a pastor or maybe a missionary.
His favorite activity, by far, is singing in the Children’s Choir. Not that he can carry a tune very well, but that small detail certainly does not hinder him. Every time he sets foot on the stage, he “makes a joyful noise unto the Lord,” causing us to giggle and whisper to each other at how adorable this boy is! He is counting the days until he can join the High School Choir, singing at special events and serving tables at banquets. It’s the ultimate goal!
His parents are active members of the Church, volunteering at Vacation Bible Schools, teaching Sunday School classes, serving as leaders in the homeschool co-op. They are our dear friends, our children growing up together, our families camping together, our small group traveling on missions trips together.
We are holding firm to our commitment to walk alongside this child. We teach his Sunday School classes, lead his Awana groups, direct his children’s choirs and coach his soccer teams. This is how Church was meant to be. What a Church Family should look like. Right?
Until one summer day, in the blink of an eye, without any forewarning whatsoever, everything changes. The school year ends, and the children “graduate” from Children’s Ministries on one side of the church campus, and are inducted into Student Ministries on the other side of the church campus. The transition is visible and immediate. Glaringly painful.
Suddenly, being the first one to raise his hand and volunteer to pray isn’t very cool. When he interrupts the Sunday School teacher to ask questions, our kids snicker and tease him for his desire to learn. And worst of all, the “joyful noise,” the sound he makes when he sings, it isn’t adorable anymore. He looks around in utter humiliation, knowing that we are all laughing at him. Realizing that he can’t, apparently, sing well. He walks off the stage, vowing never to set foot up there again.
His mother, sitting in the audience that day, sees the hurt on her son’s face, and her heart rips in two, knowing that he has just lost his innocence, and nothing will ever be the same. What she doesn’t realize at the time, is that those tears that stream down her face that day will not be stopping any time soon. Years later, during sermons about God’s great and precious promises; in the car listening to songs about never giving up; lying in bed in the middle of the darkest nights wondering where her son is, not knowing if he is still alive . . . the tears are still streaming down her face. We see her in the pew in front of us, weeping though the worship service on Sunday mornings. And we look away. It’s embarrassing.
What started out as this boy’s questions about God has now become him questioning God. Is He real? How do I know that the Bible is true? He tells his mom, Every night I sit on my bed and cry and pray, begging God to show Himself to me, and never once has He answered. I don’t think I believe any of it any more.
What was once a vital part of this young man’s life has now become torture. He hates church. He hates the awkwardness. The forced social interactions with people who, with every passing week, become more judgmental, less loving. His clothes become darker and more grungy, his shirts bearing logos of his favorite secular bands or of the online war games that he enjoy playing. His hair becomes longer and more unkempt. In a moment of impulse, he buys pentagram jewelry, wondering what those nice Christian people will have to say about it.
It’s not long before he gets his answer. One older gentleman notices him walking into church, looks him up and down, and says sternly, Young man, if you are going to dress like that, you can not come here. The kid barely hesitates. Um, ok then. His black army-style boots walk out the door, and never again does he set foot inside a church.
Most of us do not realize that he is gone. We are busy driving our own kids to discipleship groups and skate nights, attending our weekly Bible studies, decorating the stage for the next big holiday. We are planning ministry meetings and preparing for outreach events and singing in the choir. The young man who was once an active part of our Church Family has believed a lie, has been led off as a slave by the enemy, and most of us are too busy to notice.
Those of us who had been closest to this family, the friends whose children grew up together and went camping together and served in various ministries together – we notice. And we become frightened. Appalled that this has happened to someone we thought we knew. We hold our own teenagers a little bit closer, forbidding them from associating with this young man who dresses in the dark clothes. This young man whose doubts might corrupt them. We breathe a sigh of relief, thanking God over and over again that it wasn’t our kids who went astray.
The parents sometimes go to a “secret” meeting in a tiny corner room down by the fellowship hall, a prayer meeting with other parents who are similarly alarmed by their children’s choice to walk away. The meeting is “secret” because there is a stigma for those parents. Because it is shrouded in shame. It’s a secret club that no Christian parent ever wants to be a part of.
We feel sorry for them and we wonder, Where did they go wrong? Maybe they didn’t pray enough. Maybe they didn’t set a good enough example of godly living. If only they had been more consistent with their family devotions. If he was our child, we think, we definitely would not have let him get away with this.
That commitment we made 15, maybe 20 years ago? The one where we committed to walk beside this mom and dad on their parenting journey? The one where we promised to encourage them when the days get hard? The one where we vowed to pray for them and support them and partner with them along the way? No longer do we enthusiastically say, We do. It’s one thing to make that commitment to families with innocent babies and darling little children. But standing in solidarity with a family who has a wayward teenager? That’s a different story altogether.
We were all there that day when these parents dedicated their child to the Lord. But now? Who is still standing with them? Who is mentoring and counseling this young man who has lost his way? Are we doing everything within our power to help him come to a personal relationship with Jesus? Are we doing anything at all?
Why are we, the entire Church Family, not crowding into the tiny room down by the fellowship hall, falling on our faces before the Lord, begging Him to rescue this young man? Begging the Holy Spirit to open his eyes to see the freedom, the beauty, the free gift of joy and peace that can be his?
While we are driving our kids to youth group and attending our Bible studies and decorating the stage and singing in the choir, there is a War raging for his soul. How can we not fight with everything we have? Is there any ministry more important than fighting this battle on our knees? Than leaving the 99 to pursue this one (Matthew 18:12)?
If this were a real battle, a physical one, if we were facing the enemy right in front of us, what would we do? If our children were being carried off as slaves, would we stand by and idly watch it happen? Would we shame the parents for not being diligent enough? Allow them to shoulder the blame? Be embarrassed by their tears?
If our fellow soldier was injured, would we really just leave him wounded and bloody out on the field? Would we really just stand on the sidelines, either with pity or indifference, thankful that it is someone else’s battle to fight? Thinking, sure, we feel bad for that unfortunate comrade, that heart-broken parent. But ultimately, it’s not our problem. Of course we would never do that.
We, as the Church, should be boldly entering the battle alongside these parents, attempting to rescue this young man from the enemy’s clutches. Empowering our fellow soldiers with the Word of Truth. Using the Shield of Faith to defend them against the enemy’s lies and accusations and deceit. We have everything we need! The weapons we have been given are powerful enough to break every stronghold. Powerful enough, that even the very gates of hell cannot prevail against us (Matthew 16:18). Why are we not wielding them?
Where are the pastors? The watchmen that God has appointed to “pray day and night, continually, taking no rest as they pray to the Lord to fulfill His promises” (Isaiah 62:6-7)? Why are they not at the “secret” meetings, shepherding these parents through the most devastating journey they will ever be asked to take? Helping them to strengthen their wounded faith? Encouraging them to never give up? Reminding them that the story isn’t over? Reassuring them that, despite how they may feel, they are not alone in this?
Perhaps we, the Church, need to be reminded of the commitment that we once made to this family. To these parents who have devoted their lives to raise their child in a godly, Bible-focused, Christ-centered home, but who have not yet seen the fruit of their labor. To the mom and dad who prayed for this child years before he was born, begging God for the gift of this child. The ones who are even today, holding this child in their hearts, grieving that they have not yet received the miraculous answer to their deepest longing.
Perhaps we need to renew our commitment to walk beside this mom and dad on their parenting journey – the journey that has become exponentially more difficult as their child has gotten older. To encourage them, especially now that the days and nights are so incredibly hard. To mentor this young adult and counsel him and pray for him. To pursue him, running after him, refusing to give up. To do everything within our power to help him come to a personal relationship with Jesus.
Yes, we need to say once again. Yes, in the days and years to come we still commit to stand with this family and with this child who is still so very beautiful. Yes, we promise, when these parents are overcome with discouragement, devastated at the choices their son is making, to help them keep the vows that they made that day so long ago.
We commit once again to take seriously our responsibilities as their Church Family.
Yes, we do!