Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hand-Me-Down Faith

I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. (2 Timothy 1.5)
Clean Slates
We enter the world as handcrafted models of God, specifically molded by Him for His purpose. Yet our shaping doesn’t end there. Once He releases us to our keepers—parents, family, friends, pastors, teachers, et al.—we become clean slates on which they inscribe their virtues and vanities, certainties and fears. Much of this occurs before we’re sufficiently experienced to erase any unhealthy impressions, and we spend the rest of our lives either mindlessly complying or consciously resisting them. Racial prejudice is a classic case. Until a child “learns” skin color “means something,” race is insignificant. As Rogers and Hammerstein put it in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (South Pacific; 1949):

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade.
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You've got to be carefully taught!
Thankfully, young minds are equally receptive to positive ideals. When we teach them all that is right and good, that’s what they seek and recognize. Principles of faith, justice, and service become ingrained in them to such a degree that hateful, self-serving behaviors prove alien to their character. Proverbs 22.6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” As they develop, they’ll likely dabble in unwholesome attitudes or fall in with undesirable crowds. We’re wrong to expect them to be better than we were at their ages. But when they mature, what we’ve taught them and exemplified remains. Paul finds this in Timothy. “I believe the sincere faith that lived in your grandmother, Lois, and your mother, Eunice, now lives in you also,” he writes.

Courageous Women of Heart and Mind

This is the only time Scripture mentions Lois and Eunice by name. The little we can piece together of their lives comes by extrapolation from what’s known about Timothy. Historians place his birth at 17 AD, making him an adolescent during Jesus’s ministry. It’s unlikely he and his family knew of Christ at the time, though, since Acts 16.1 indicates they live in Lystra, a village in Asia Minor. The Acts reference also confirms Timothy is the son of a mixed marriage, his mother being a Jew and his father a Greek. This and both women having Greek names suggest they’re fully assimilated into Gentile life. Acts 16.3 supports this by reporting Timothy isn’t circumcised until he meets Paul and the Apostle performs the rite to quell any controversy about the young man’s Jewish descent. Yet by this time, Lois and Eunice appear to have established themselves in the Lystra church and raised Timothy to be a devout believer. Indeed, 1 Timothy 1.18 and 4.14 note a prophecy in his youth that pre-ordains him as a prominent Early Church leader. Paul’s high regard for Lois and Eunice no doubt results from their concerted efforts to instill their faith in him and prepare him for service.

These clues whet our thirst to learn more about Lois and Eunice. Surely their lives were eventful, their influence significant, and their examples worthy of emulation. Yet despite our scarce knowledge, it’s obvious Lois and Eunice were courageous women of heart and mind—iconoclasts of the first order. Their integration into secular society speaks to a pragmatic faith-life balance, while their firm belief shielded them from harmful compromises. Social integrity leant dignity to their faith and vice-versa. And their commitment to imbed these values in Timothy steeled his confidence to fulfill his calling. While their personal histories have been lost, their impact survives in Paul’s counsel to Timothy and the young evangelist’s fervor. We are all Lois and Eunice’s children.

Keep Faith Alive

The teachings and promises of Christ survive exclusively on hand-me-down faith, with each generation conscientiously transmitting His gospel to succeeding ones. Some of us are fortunate to experience this in our biological families; belief in God and trust in His promises form the central threads of our heritage. Others of us are blessed to join ad hoc faith families, graced by the wisdom and strength of spiritual godparents. Yet whether the latest in a long line of believers or the first of our kin to live by faith, each of us belongs to the same family. Through Christ, Paul says in Galatians 4.5, we “receive the full rights of sons.” Preserving and perpetuating our legacy of faith is a critical part of exercising full rights as God’s children. We must take care the faith that lives in us gets planted, nurtured, and thrives in those who follow. In this sense, then, we are also parents. We are all Loises and Eunices.

The first lights of spiritual renewal are breaking in lives cruelly overshadowed by religious bigots and fearmongers. Every day our family grows larger as more people discern the lies and deceit of those who insist they don’t, can’t, and will never belong. Malnourished, severely stunted refugees are coming home in droves. New children are being born into God’s family by the hour. Reactionary prejudice against the Church—spawned by deep-seated prejudice within it—is lifting and the halls of faith are becoming full-blown nurseries. It’s our duty to keep faith alive—to impress its principles on our young and exemplify its beauty for their benefit. Faith is our most precious possession, the most precious gift we’ll ever hand down to future generations. We preserve it by teaching them to prize it.

We must take care the faith that lives in us gets planted, nurtured, and thrives in generations that follow. We are all Loises and Eunices.

(Next: Too Much for the Man)

Postscript: “Children Will Listen”
A search for video of “Carefully Taught” led me to Stephen Sondheim’s profound “Children Will Listen,” which embellishes the Rogers and Hammerstein message. It’s not surprising, though—Hammerstein served as Sondheim’s surrogate father and mentor after his natural father abandoned the family. In combination, the songs and their writers’ relationship speak volumes about hand-me-down faith and values. Take a moment to listen and consider how we transmit our faith to young believers of every age.

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