You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
I can never hear that saying without thinking of Festus Hagan. Now, for those of us of a certain age, if you hear the name Festus Hagan, you know he was Marshall Matt Dillon’s faithful deputy on the long-running radio and then television series “Gunsmoke.” My family never missed Gunsmoke.
Festus was a sometimes ornery, but mostly good-natured fellow. He was rough around the edges, he didn’t have a formal education, he was not very refined, but he had a heart of gold. And, he had great stories, mostly of the Hagan clan—his family.
When I was growing up I had an album that Ken Curtis, the man who played Festus, had recorded. It was truly funny. And, one of the things I remember from that album was a variation on, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
The Festus Hagan version of it goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but before you do, just remember how a wet horse smells.” (And, it still makes me laugh when I say it.)
Both of those sayings were things I learned as a child. Both of them have stuck with me. And, if you think about it, both of them have wisdom, in their own right.
When I do children’s sermons on Sunday mornings in worship, I have said to the children on more than one occasion that what we do matters. What we say matters. And, what we don’t do or don’t say also matters. It matters what children learn. It matters where they learn it. And, it matters who teaches them.
The book of Proverbs reminds us of the importance of knowledge, instruction, and wisdom. And, as it was in the ancient world, and as it is for many people today, these writings were designed to give us a frame of reference for interpreting and understanding the events of life.
Sages and teachers over the years believed that God reveals God’s self through our experiences and dilemmas in life, and through our humanity. And, in a very immediate way, wisdom itself is one of the ways of knowing God.
Proverbs is one of the texts of wisdom literature in the Old Testament. One of the key phrases in Proverbs is “Fear of the Lord.” It is a phrase also found in the earlier writings of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, we find some parallel phrases, like “walking in his ways,” and “serving the Lord with all your heart and soul.
But, Proverbs was written a bit differently than Deuteronomy in that the direct references to God—to Yahweh—are mostly absent. The writer of Proverbs focused on other ways of being in relationship with God and God being in relationship with God’s people.
Primarily the focus is on gaining wisdom, which translates into and is interwoven with respecting and obeying God.
In Deuteronomy and Proverbs, the authors would have connected the concept of “fear of the Lord” with how we live—our lifestyle—our morality. And, it would have been voiced out of concern for self and out of concern for society. The Proverbs and other wisdom literature were offered as a means of helping us understand what it means for human society to live in harmony—to place value on the need for discovery, understanding, and cooperation.
Proverbs 4:7 pulls this together for us and the King James Version, says it a bit more poetically: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.”
It seemed to me that on this Sunday that we are celebrating as Children’s Sabbath, it might be a good idea to consider our role in teaching wisdom. And, it might be a good thing for us to take some time and think about what we’re doing to teach the word of God and the ways of God to our children.
I want to do that because it matters!
I believe that THE most important thing we ever do for our children—for all children–is to teach them about the unending and amazing love that God has for them (that God has for all of us) as it is conveyed to us through scripture and as it was formed in us even before we were born.
The foundation of faith that we help our children build from the time we have an inkling of an idea that they will be born into this world until they are grown is essential. Nothing else that we do will sustain our children throughout their lives in the ways that their foundation of faith will.
My daughter Elizabeth is a senior in high school this year. We have begun the process of visiting college campuses, and she is filling out applications, taking ACT and SAT tests (numerous times) and making sure all her course work will be complete come next June. Her father and I have been looking for a while now at scholarships and financial aid and getting into the serious discussions of how we will pay for her to go to college.
We have had as many discussions as she will allow about what she might major in and what career path she might take. She’s informed us recently that she’s really tired of talking about that right now—and I completely get that. She’s 17. That we or anyone else should expect her or any other 17 year old to know what she wants to major in and what she wants to do for the rest of her life is completely absurd.
But, I can tell you that as important as all of those things are to her father and me, what I’m most concerned about is whether or not we have been parents who have done all we could to prepare her and our son James (who will be at this same place in a couple of years) to go out and live in this world? Have we helped them to build a foundation that is firm enough and strong enough to sustain them when they’re faced with making decisions—both the big, life-changing ones, and the ones that matter in day-to-day life? Have we modeled for them what it means to be good, kind, compassionate, caring people? Have they been given a foundation of faith by us (and by those who have been part of their lives) that will help them weather the storms they will certainly encounter? Do they have what they need to withstand the difficult tests that the world will no doubt put before them?
I have known from the moment I knew I was pregnant that the most important thing I would ever do as a mother would be to raise my children to be people who knew that while I was their mother, they were first and foremost a child of God. And, because they are, my responsibility to them was to make sure that they were taught foundational things that they could call on anytime they wanted or needed for as long as they lived. Those foundational things would be the words and stories of the Bible and of faith. They would be words given by a loving God that would be written on their hearts—words that would forever assure them that they are a child of God, that God takes great delight in them, and that God has given them everything they need to live the life that God has called them to live.
And, one of the ways this happened was by making sure that our children had not just parents who were committed to this, but also by making sure that they were part of a family of faith, a community of Christ, who would commit to walking this journey with us. It is part of our responsibility to teach our kids. And, I understood early on that responsibility included taking them to a church that would support us and be committed to that teaching, too.
Ask and parent raising kids today and they will likely tell you that in today’s culture, we need back-up. We need our church to help us take care of our children. We need our church to help us teach our children. We need our church to love us and encourage us to be here and be part of life here. We need our church to remind us when we are bone tired and stressed out by everyday life why it matters that we are here on a regular basis. Parents need a community of faith that will welcome and embrace and care for us and our children because raising a child in 21st century America is exhausting and sometimes it wears us out.
I know every generation has its challenges in raising children. I was born when parents were worried about sending their sons to Viet Nam and we were in the middle of a Cold War with the Soviet Union. My parents were born when their fathers were being sent off to fight in Europe and the Pacific in World War II. My grandparents grew up and came of age during the Depression. Parents now also face the challenges of a world that is pretty divisive and has its own wars and economic issues to face. And, we’re wondering how in the world we’re going to raise our kids well. We need the strength and love and presence of our families of faith. We need them more than ever.
When our children are baptized as infants here, we speak words of commitment to those children, promising that we will be present for them, teach them, nurture, them and help them grow in their faith.
When our children receive Bibles from their church, we promise to help them continue in their growth and to teach them what’s in that Bible and why those words are not just ancient words on a page—they are living words that have meaning and relevance right here, right now.
When our children are confirmed in that faith we promise them that we will continue to teach them and stay with them on their journey of faith, because confirmation is not the destination—it’s another step on that journey.
We’ve made promises to these children. And, we need to make sure on a regular basis that we are keeping our promises to these children.
Because, you know, if we can’t keep those promises to our children, then why should they trust us with anything? That’s a pretty strong statement to make, I know.
But, we have study after study and book after book that document in excruciating detail how many times the church (and I’m speaking of the larger body of he church) has failed to keep its promises to its children—children of all ages. There’s been some serious wounding of people who lost their faith because of the words and deeds of churches who failed to take care of children because they failed/we failed to keep our promises. And, sadly, many have decided that if the church, which is supposed to be a reflection of God, isn’t keeping its promises, then why should they trust God either. When that happens, it takes a long time for that trust to be restored…and sometimes, it’s just gone and nothing we will ever do will fix that.
I am saying this because I believe that in today’s world, churches better be willing to be families of faith that pay extraordinary attention to the care and nurturing of our children. If we do not care for them, if we do not keep our promises to them, if we do not feed them words that nourish their souls and give them a real chance to thrive and grow into the people God created them to be, then we have failed them. And, I promise you that if we don’t give them our best efforts at giving them the Good News of Jesus Christ, the world is more than ready and willing and capable of feeding them the worst kind of junk food that can be consumed. And, it’s the kind of stuff that will kill body, mind and spirit.
The writings in Proverbs are reminders for us to take very seriously the raising of our children. As parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles—as teachers and leaders and people of God—it is part of our vocation to teach our children the Good News, the life-giving word of God, that’s been given to us.
Friends, it is part of our calling to help each other continue to grow in our faith and to live our faith and abundantly share the love of God with each other every single day.
Our challenge as a church in these days ahead is not a new one, but it bears repeating and it may be that we are at a crossroads where we need to renew our commitment—a commitment to be a community of faith that is honest, authentic, courageous, welcoming, compassionate, and loving.
Our challenge is to be a church that extravagantly cares for our children and families and for each other, one that longs to share the knowledge and wisdom of our years, and joyfully encourages one another to be who God created us to be.
And, our challenge is for each of us to go out of these doors every week and share the good news of the grace of God, the love of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit with everyone who needs it.
Because you know what—it really does matter.
I wish you peace…