One of my tasks in the parish is to be a catechist: to prepare candidates for baptism and confirmation by teaching them the basics of the faith. It is my practice to do so through Lent, and to use the Apostles’ Creed (what Christians believe), The Ten Commandments (how Christians act), and the Lord’s Prayer (how Christians live and worship) as guides. This past year, it was my especial privilege to prepare my daughter to affirm for herself the promises Rachel and I, and Jason and Kara made on her behalf at the chancel steps of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in 2004.
As we were working through the commandments, we got to “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This is the fifth commandment and the first of the second table of the Law. It stands at the head of those laws that fall broadly under what it means to “love thy neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18). “What do you think this means, Sara?” came the fairly standard start-off question.
“It means that I should do what you and mommy tell me to do.”
“So that I can have a good life.”
Nothing terribly radical in that exchange. But as we talked further, some deep observations began to take shape between Sara and me. Ones that I (to my chagrin) had never thought before.
We had spent the first part of the previous lesson talking about the notions of covenant and mutual obligation (You will be my people and I will be your God). We talked about God’s act (deliverance from slavery) and promise (I will bring you into the land). And we talked about the people’s response (obedience in the land). All that came flooding back when we began to reflect on what it means to honor one’s parents.
As we talked, Sara and I came to the conclusion, first, that the fifth commandment was a mini-covenant. That is, it implied responsibilities on both sides. Children were to honor their parents, yes, and to do so in an asymmetrically related way to that in which the people were to honor God. If that’s the case, though, then there must also be some sort of obligation attached. It is this: parents are obligated to teach their children the covenant, to live it out in front of them, to talk about it when they lay down and rise up, when they are at home or on the road (Deut. 6). If children are to honor parents, then, of course, parents are to behave honorably. And teaching the covenant is what honorable behavior looks like.
The next conclusion then emerged easily: “that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” is not the individual promise of a long life, but rather has to do with the continuity of the covenant for the community in the land. God’s promise of the good, land-ed life is contingent upon the passing of the covenant from parent to child through successive generations. If parents fail to teach; if children fail to honor, then the covenant will collapse.
“Daddy,” came the most honest question yet, “is this why there are no kids in our church?” While her assessment of “no kids” was false, Sara had made a deep connection: our third conclusion. We have had two generations of failed catechesis in homes. Homes in which the faith was neither practiced nor taught, but farmed out to the ministry professionals to attend to. The covenant was broken. Parents have failed to teach their children; children have failed to honor their parents. I can’t help but wonder, after all the sociological assessments of millennials and their (lack of) religious affiliation are completed, a lot might be explained by a thesis as simple as this one. At some point, parents had nothing to pass on, and that’s exactly what their kids learned.
And finally the fourth: our youth oriented culture (no, not the bugaboo secular culture, but the youth-oriented church culture) has it exactly backwards. Making our primary goal attracting young families or youth or children may well end up being a recipe for a slow decline and death. Sara and I decided that we should belong to a churchy church, one that taught what it had received, one that worshiped in continuity with generations of previous believers, in the hope that the promise would not fail and that our days in the land would be long.
It might not be time to write ICHABOD over the doors just yet.