Thursday, October 27, 2011

History, Spaniards and Youth

Santander is in Northern Spain, not terribly far from France. Proud of having never been under Muslim rule, it is a part of old Europe. A city of merchants in the days of the Spanish Empire, the Spaniards, who created the global market, made this city especially wealthy and elegant by sailing to and from the world’s great ports. As I look out from my window down the street toward the Atlantic Ocean, the old mansions and parks of Santander reveal that the modern inhabitants of this city retain much of the elegance and some of the wealth their ancestors created.

Today, I visited Potes, a small mountain town about one hundred and thirty kilometers from Santander. Despite its size, Potes was important when the Muslims occupied much of Spain. On the border that separated Christendom from Islam, it served as a bastion of Western culture. The European powers filled the area surrounding it with monasteries to create a cultural and religious boundary that would separate them from their enemies. Some of those monasteries are now impressive ruins; others are still in use.

We visited one ancient church that monks established in the sixth century. An elderly Franciscan received us at the door, took us on a tour, and pronounced a blessing over us when we left.

As in many places in Europe, monuments and memorials are abundant here. To all who have ears to hear, these houses of history speak of things that have transpired over the last two thousand years and, to those who listen, pass along their wisdom for the present and their warnings for the future.

Augustus Caesar conquered the Celts who originally inhabited Santander. He called it Port Victoria and made it an outpost of the Roman Empire. Not long afterward, Christians settled here. They made a contribution to the city that has survived through the centuries and which remains visible today.

This history is wonderful to experience, all the more because we are in the company of contemporary Christians. As they show us these various sites, they neither defend nor defame their history. They merely tell the story of their homeland as we pass one historical marker after another.

Last night, I met with a group of them in an apartment. Most of them were college students who meet each week to worship and pray. They asked me to share with them something from my pastoral experience. I immediately loved the professional, intelligent young adults sitting in that room. They have made a choice in this post-Christian culture that may seriously affect their careers and their placement in society. Many of them are responsible for small groups around the city and so have already become the present and future leaders of the Lord’s church in Northern Spain.

There are no monuments to announce the greatness of these young leaders. However, they are far more important to the future of God’s work in Spain than all the magnificent memorials I have found so impressive.

When I returned to our apartment, they made me think about Alfred McCroskey, a man once full of vigor and vision who has now become a part of history.

I cried, thinking about how he is no longer with us. I thanked God for his work and read over the eulogy I had written for his funeral. 

I wrote the eulogy to tell the story about a great and good man. I wish I could do more, and perhaps I will, to mark the magnificence of his spiritual accomplishments. For now I have written the eulogy because such things, like the monasteries and monuments in Spain, connect us to our roots.  They must be maintained so we can copy the achievements, and escape the mistakes, of our past. That is why history is important and must be told.

This morning however, I thought about how much easier it is to praise the dead than to honor the living.

Furthermore, how much easier it is to respect elderly leaders than to respect younger ones.  This is probably the reason St. Paul told Timothy not to allow people to despise his youth.  Presumably, some had been doing just that and Paul wanted them to stop. The disrespect toward the young pastor was discouraging Timothy and undermining God’s work.  
Paul wrote as one who worshipped a man who had died before he even reached his mid-thirties. The Lord’s disciples, whom he knew, had also been young, as is evident by the fact that they lived for many more decades, spreading the faith and writing the New Testament.

Since its very beginning, young leaders have been important to our faith.

I am trying to keep this in mind as I notice how the young Spanish leaders look at me. They treat me like some sort of patriarch. I appreciate their respect, even though I don’t view myself as old as they seem to see me. Nonetheless, it makes me cautious.

What if I say something to them that influences them to take a wrong path? What if that harms the work of God in this country? What if I discourage them from following their chosen vocation because I know, as they cannot know, that the road ahead will be difficult?

Should I tell them that some of God’s people will treat them poorly? Should I inform these young, idealistic people; eager as they are to take the gospel to the streets of Santander, that there will be those who will take no delight in their enthusiasm, will not acknowledge any success they may have, nor grant them any respect for the sacrifices they will make? Must I tell them that they will receive very little grace from some of their flock as they learn to teach the scripture and to care for the needs of the church? Am I obligated to say that they will be expected to work as many hours as their friends and get as much of an education; and, even though they will be expected to wear presentable clothes and to be socially active, will probably not make enough money to do this as often as many think they should? 

Must I tell them that earning the respect of God’s people is a long and difficult process and that whatever they do, some people will never respect them or their work?

No, I must not say such things.

I rebuked one young Gypsy pastor for saying that while he loved the Lord and loved the Lord’s church, he knew that his Gypsy heritage would always be an obstacle for those who come from polite society.

“NONESENSE!” I replied. “People hungry for God don’t care about such things. Those who do care about such things are not yet ready for the kingdom of God.”

I then walked over to where he was sitting, hugged him and impulsively kissed him on the head.

 “You are the servant of the Lord, “I said.  “I esteem you. Being a Gypsy and being young has nothing to do with anything. Lead the flock.”

After that, I read some selected passages that Paul wrote to Timothy.

When I finished talking, I sent a text to Austin, my son-in-law. I asked him to stop what he was doing and read the passages I had just read to the Spanish leaders:

“Let no one despise your youth. Be a good soldier. Study to show yourself approved.”

And so forth.

So, I have been thinking today about our young leaders at Christ Church. I have been realizing how much I respect them – not just love them, but respect them. They study. They pray. They work hard to meet the needs of a changing world.  And, most importantly, they will outlive those of us who are today’s seasoned leaders. When we are gone, they will carry on. 

And if not them, who?

St. Paul didn’t want to die. He had much more to do. He had much more to say. But time had caught up with him. Great apostle or not, his time was almost over. He was worried about the future of the church.  He knew Timothy wasn’t ready to lead. Perhaps he was concerned that Timothy may not even be up to the task of learning to lead. But he had no choice. The future was arriving. The aging apostle would soon be gone. So, Paul picked up his pen and wrote a letter to Timothy, and through him, to every Christian leader who would ever guide the Lord’s church through changing times.  

I read Paul’s two letters to Timothy again last night. As I read, I did a lot of thinking.

I have watched my son-in-law learn how to be a husband, a father, and a minister of the gospel. I have watched him struggle with debilitating physical illnesses. I have watched him open his heart to spiritual experiences that were new and strange for him, simply because older brothers and sisters in Christ whom he respected, urged him to do so. I have come to respect him as a man of prayer, a student of the Word, and as a man who has a profound concern for the Lord’s church.

He is a good and a godly man.

I have watched Daniel Bell, who is older than Austin but still younger than me, undertake the long and difficult hours of study required for a first-class seminary education. I have observed how his presentation of the gospel has deepened. I have noted his tears as he recounted to me the struggles that people in our flock are facing. I have watched him grow in pastoral abilities. I am glad to work with him.

Colleen Hollis amazes me. She accepted a call from God often especially difficult for a woman: preaching the gospel. I have observed her grace, humility and dedication to study, prayer and Christian service in the face of her own self-doubts.

I could list others, such as Christopher Phillips, already a leader wise beyond his years. Or Michael Alfred, who for two years, walked to church every day because he did not make enough money to both pay for a car and health insurance to protect his family. He learned Greek in order to read the New Testament in the original language. He teaches our youth the Word of God.

Jeremy Carlson and Jay Clark do whatever they are asked to do because they love this congregation.

These are all noteworthy things, which we should acknowledge and respect.

Behind all these young leaders (and some of them not so young) are dedicated spouses, volunteers, staff and employees who work untold hours to serve our community, a board of experienced wise men and women, and a growing group of seasoned deacons and other kinds of spiritual leaders.

We are truly blessed.

But I must end my reflection, which has already grown too long.

I knew Alfred McCroskey before people honored him. In those days, he lived in a tiny apartment that a church member made available. No one asked Alfred to preach in a great church conference. Christian television celebrities never asked him for an interview. He used a tiny office in our church until we needed it for other things. He did whatever he had to do, without bitterness or a sense of entitlement, to follow his call.

All that made it easy for us to honor him at his funeral. His work is finished. The quality of his accomplishments is evident. It is now safe to praise him.

But I am thinking today that Alfred probably needed more encouragement earlier in his journey than he needed it at the end.

When he was new to the stage, he was not always sure how to present himself. A kind word or a bit of praise would have gone a long way to reassure him and give him the energy to continue his work.

Alas, emerging leaders rarely get the praise they need. Instead, they endure their own self-doubts, the attacks of the devil, and the needless wounds inflicted on them by the household of faith.

We must do better.

As Jesus warned, “it is inevitable that offenses should come; but woe to those from whom it comes.”

I will speak for myself: I am sometimes guilty of expecting from youth a level of maturity that I did not have when I was young, and which indeed I do not always demonstrate today. If a young leader is timid, I tend to think he will never become a great leader. If he has confidence, I am tempted to think him arrogant. With such impossibly demanding criteria, we in effect eliminate everyone from Christian leadership, especially the young.

Sitting here in Santander, overlooking two thousand years of history, I am asking myself “does it have to be this way?”

That’s why I will go to the meeting tonight and hug those young leaders. I will tell them that they are our hope and future. I will tell them that I believe in them and that the Lord believes in them. I will confess that we didn’t know what we were doing either and often still don’t. I will tell them that this has been the case for two thousand years, but that the Lord has nonetheless led his church through flawed and stumbling people like us, generation after generation. They need to know that they will not be an exception.

And I will tell them, “Let no one, including me, despise your youth.”

I don’t want to wait for another funeral to esteem those who do God’s work, whether they are young or old.

That is how I will intend to honor Alfred, the old Franciscan monk and all he represents, my spiritual fathers in God, and God Himself: 
By affirming the Head of the Church’s sovereign choice to call young leaders into the work that has been ongoing ever since Jesus left us and went to heaven, at age 33.

No comments: