Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Baby Spoons or Silverware

I’ve spent all my life in Christian education. I attended a wonderful Christian K-12 school nearly all the way through, went to a Christian college, spent four fantastic years in seminary, and now I teach high school Bible in a Christian school much like the one I grew up in. Sitting in chapel last Wednesday, a question came to my mind. Are we, in American evangelicalism, spoon-feeding our kids (and adults) or are we teaching them to use silverware so they can feed themselves?
Many of the students in the chapel go to church and youth group regularly, come to my bible class daily and attend chapel each week. In all these contexts, they are “spiritually fed.” But as I observe some of them in the classroom, I notice that for all the spiritual nourishment they receive, there is relatively little corresponding appetite. And some who are hungry are nearly helpless to feed themselves, let alone prepare and cook their own meal. These trends seem to repeat themselves in the broader church.
The day after chapel, I engaged a couple of my classes on this issue. I started with an analogy. Newborns have a sucking instinct and an intense desire to eat; they are serious about this (and they remain serious throughout childhood, needing nourishment to support rapid growth and development). At around six months, they learn to take food from a spoon. Then we introduce finger food. A few months later parents take the plunge and hand the spoon over to the baby. This is tough at first. Their uncoordinated attempts make a mess of table, bib and face. They often revert to using their fingers. But they keep at it. Soon they can control the spoon and eventually they can get food from plate to mouth without getting it in their hair. As they grow, they learn to master fork, knife and napkin and eat like adults. Many Christians seem stuck in the early stages of this development, depending on others to feed them. Why? My students’ responses were interesting. I can divide them into two categories: blame the restaurant (the church/school) or blame the eater (the Christian). Most fell in the former category. Here I’ll reflect on a few of them.
  • If the baby food doesn’t taste good, why would we want more? Why to eat if we don’t een like the food? Perhaps it was providence that the day I brought this up we were covering Revelation 10, where the prophet John is commanded to eat the scroll of God’s Word, so he can speak it to the nations. It tasted sweet as honey in his mouth, but turned his stomach sour. God’s Word is like that: bittersweet. It can taste like honey and burn like fire (Revelation 11:5, 10; Jeremiah 5:11-14). Often, the truth hurts. It confronts us. When it does, we can choose to despise it or grow wise from it, to chew and swallow or spit it out.
  • We’re overfed and not given time savor the food and absorb the nutrients. We get indigestion and throw up. There may be some truth to this. There is much fast-food teaching that resembles Burger King buck doubles. And these kids’ parents control their spiritual (and nutritional) diet as much or more than they do, so they can’t always change the menu. But I know there is deep and profound truth in what many of them hear each week (I know some of their pastors and listen to their chapel speakers; many are fantastic). There is much to savor if they choose to. I suspect indigestion is due not to over-consumption of spiritual food, but to other parts of their diet that prevent proper digestion: media, virtual reality (video games), and social life, both substandard encounters (facebook and texting) and authentic face-to-face relationships.
  • People don’t give us silverware. There is also some truth to this. I struggle with it as a teacher. In the short run, spoon-feeding is easier. Less mess. Less work. Not to mention I’m trying to feed a table full of students with varying abilities and appetites. I fear that the hungry, who would eagerly take up the tools and eat a solid meal, sit famished or frustrated while we add jelly and raisins to the salad so the rest will eat it.
  • Perhaps an equal and opposite problem is that many have not acquired a taste for nutritious food. Most Americans (to my bewilderment) intentionally acquire tastes for expensive and potentially harmful things (like coffee and alcohol), but we don’t develop an appetite for the bittersweet message of the Bible. One student said people may be turned off by intimidating or offensive parts of the message. This is certainly true; it never ceases to scandalize (1 Corinthians 1:23)! Another, when we were discussing baby food, asked why our parents make us eat mashed up vegetables when we were little. My blood immediately boiled, and I said we eat them because they’re good for us! Despite the diabolical lie that only what feels and tastes good actually is good, often the best things for us are those we like the least. My family has gone through a nutritional overhaul since my first daughter was born. My wife wanted to give her a chance at good health by building better habits from the start. I now enjoy foods I never would have imagined and find myself disgusted by food I used to like. Perhaps the bittersweet message of God’s Word is a taste we must acquire.
  • One student represented this side of the argument when she stated simply, “People like candy.” It’s interesting how the spiritual mirrors the nutritional. Americans live on junk food and empty calories. We like it because it tastes good (again, it’s acquired, or rather engrained since it’s been fed to us since birth). We might know all the statistics and health risks associated with our diet, but we ignore these and keep eating because it tastes good. Until we change our appetites, truly good food will taste bad to us. It’s like my boss, Joe, who likes canned fruit over fresh because he spent years on a fishing boat without access to the good stuff. How can we penetrate the denial and convince people that healthy food is delicious. Perhaps we need to explain the difference of ingredients and share our food slowly so their tastes can change. Perhaps some people need a purging process.
  • Here’s an insightful reason: The people before us don’t know how to feed themselves either (so they can’t teach us). I tend to agree. It’s no secret that most evangelical Christians are biblically and theologically illiterate. The sad part is we either don’t realize it or we don’t care. We sit in the cushy church chairs, content to eat mashed up peas and applesauce off the spoon. And some (thank God not all![1]) of my students sit in class either completely disengaged or moaning and groaning because they’d rather watch a movie than digest the life-giving, life-sustaining words of the living God.
I can’t understand it! Where is the appetite? Human children have an instinctive urge to eat. Don’t (or shouldn’t) God’s children hunger to feed their soul? We sing, “This is my daily bread / Your very word spoken to me / And I I’m desperate for you.”[2] Are these empty words? Where are the Christians who join the Psalmist in their thirst for God (Psalm 42:1) and longing for his truth (Psalm 19:9-11; 119:103)? Milk is indispensible for growth (1 Peter 2:2). Eventually we must move on to meat (1 Corinthians 3:1-2; Hebrews 5:11-14). But if we would do so, we must learn to take up the tools and eat.

[1] I am extremely grateful for those students who engage in the learning process. I’m not sure if I could keep doing my work without them. They bring joy and encouragement to their teacher’s soul.
[2] Marie Barnett. “Breathe.” Mercy / Vineyard Publishing: 1995.

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