"How do you feel about other people's children? Do you see them as people worthy of your time, effort, prayers and affection?"
Love your neighbour as yourself
I responded to his post because it's a question dear to my heart, and in the process I began thinking about how I was treated as a child and the impact it had on my life. Tim's question of course was directed to those in the church, and is worth asking within the church alone, but I have always felt that as Christians we are far too ready to place a fence around our concerns for others. While there is good biblical justification for the priority that parents are to give to the care, concern and spiritual growth of their children, we can easily become oblivious to the needs of our neighbours. By neighbours, I mean the broadest sense of the word, the Luke 10 sense, where Jesus challenges the expert in the law ("lawyer" ESV) who had just tried to challenge Jesus himself. You no doubt know how it unfolds; the lawyer asks, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds by asking him "what is written in the Law?" The lawyer then quotes from Leviticus 19:8 - we are to "Love your neighbour as yourself." Jesus then responds with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan and makes it clear for the lawyer that the extent of his love and concern for others should extend beyond his family and fellow Jews even to a stranger (Luke 10:25-37), in fact in other places Jesus extends this even further - "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-45).
Some decent men in my life
When I reflect on my first 31 years as a non-believer and atheist, I can identify a number of decent men who took an interest in me; who saw me as their 'neighbour'. These were men who demonstrated in the richest sense of Jesus parable what it is to be a neighbour to other people's children. I'll share how just two of them did it.
There was Paul, the owner of the local slot car track and pinball hall. As a young teenager I would spend up to 25 hours per week at the slot car track - playing pinball machines, racing and repairing slot cars, messing around and hanging over the counter talking to Paul about sport, cars, girls and life in general. Paul had his own wife and two children and his mother-in-law living with him. He was a devoted husband and father even though like most small business owners he worked long hours. He was always quick to give advice - "Don't talk like that!" "Don't you need to go home to do some school work?" "Do your parents know that you're here so late?" "What are you going to do with yourself when you leave school?" "One day I want to be able to tell people that you're an engineer not unemployed."
There was Mr Campbell my 4th grade teacher. I was a grubby and chubby little kid who would try to sit at the back of the room, with the seat out of my hand-me-down pants and a neglected appearance that was brought to the attention of DOCs on at least one occasion. He was the first teacher who recognised some things in me that others had missed. He took an interest in me in and out of the classroom. He would talk with me in the playground when I drifted towards him. He would encourage me inside the classroom, calling on me to answer questions when my hand didn't go up, setting me work that would challenge me, talking patiently with me when I messed up, and looking for ways to challenge me. He gave me several jobs. One of them was to put me in charge of the brand new school aquarium with tropical fish. I'd never seen tropical fish before. I'd seen goldfish and the mullet I caught from the creek, but never fish like this. I was entrusted with the only local source of knowledge "An introduction to caring for tropical fish" and encouraged to take care of them; and I did with great success. Eventually, he gave me my first public speaking opportunity, a talk I delivered on tropical fish to the class. I was now an expert on something.
There were other people (a baseball coach, a cricket coach, a high school geography teacher, the father of one of my closest mates) who also demonstrated that they were concerned for me and that they were interested in my life and my welfare. None of these men were Christians, but each was a decent man and each had a significant impact on my life, second only perhaps to that the only significant Christian influence, my grandfather. While God was to use a variety of Christians later in my life (between the ages 20-31) building on it my Grandfather's godly example, God also used these few decent men in my formative years.
For me the challenge as a Christian is this. If God can use a few decent men who didn't know him or his eternal purposes, how much more can God use godly Christian men in the lives of their neighbour's children? Furthermore, how available am I to be used in similar ways? In fact, how can I ensure that I am seeking to be used by God in this way? Am I even conscious that God might use me this way? Of course, I know that God expects me to do more than live alongside people, he wants me to share my faith in Christ with others. But how seriously do I take to heart that I am to love my neighbour as myself? And perish the thought, am I so bound up with caring for my own nuclear family that I have no time or interest in my neighbours (young and old)?
There isn't space to go into much detail, but my personal challenge, and one I hope readers will share, is for each of us to do a quick assessment of the type of neighbour we are to the other families even in our street or apartment block. Of course for this to happen, our lives need to intersect with their lives in some way. How can we make this happen? This will vary depending on our circumstances - whether young or old, married or single, male or female etc. If for example, you have a young family, you have a great opportunity to involve yourself in other people's lives. When my children were growing up my wife and I had wonderful opportunities to be involved with other families. For us there were three areas where we had numerous opportunities outside the church:
- Through school - we got to know parents and children at bus stops, in the playground, at school events and in the community. In one street where we lived our house was an open house for all 43 children in the street (42 of whom were girls!).
- Through sporting teams - my daughters played sport summer and winter in the primary school years and generally I ended up coaching their teams. As a result, I had opportunities to know the team members and their families.
- Through other out-of-school activities like dance classes and music lessons.
I have no idea what influence my wife and I had in these years but I do know that we were enriched by these opportunities, and that we began to develop a concern for these children and their families. With this came opportunities for prayer and for us to share our faith. As well, our own daughters saw us relating to other children, which I'm sure was helpful for them in the formative years of their faith.
A related post
I have written about the importance of communities being concerned about children more generally in a previous post titled "Other people's children"