On the occasion of a family dinner in honor of my recent 60th birthday, I posed for this photo with our family’s two new additions. My arms are holding my beautiful granddaughters, Anne Marie Gower (left) and Torah Grace Greening (right). That night my heart swelled greatly from my joy and gratitude in having my family around me with their laughter and love.
That same week, two other events occurred that, in light of our family celebration, caused me to ponder. I was preparing for a message I would preach the coming Sunday in the church my son (Torah’s father) is planting. The message was part of a series from Luke’s Gospel on the theme “People Jesus Loves.” The intent of the series was to shape the ethos of our new church with the Biblical value of Christlike love for the variety of people in our community who need the gospel; that is, those with disabilities, the sick, widows, single moms, troubled sinners, religious leaders, and the like.
My assigned theme was “Jesus Loves Children.” The Gospel accounts tell us Jesus held children in His arms. It must have been special for those children to be with Jesus. He interacted with them up close and personal. He acknowledged and affirmed them. They knew of His deep affection and interest. The tender scene of Jesus with children often portrayed in Bible literature provides an ideal picture for us in reaching out to love people in our neighborhoods.
Also during that week, I became aware of a breaking news story that seemed totally incongruous to Jesus’ ministry with children. It told of a tragic account of clergy pedophilia that has come to light after years of quiet concealment. My heart, which had filled with joy hours before, now wrestled with shock and sorrow. How ironic life can be. The ideal of Jesus reaching out to touch the “little lambs” (children) in His sinless perfection was broadsided by the reality of an undershepherd violating children. Trusting parents brought their children to Jesus because of the anticipated blessing they would receive. They were not disappointed. On the other hand, trusting parents brought their children to this modern-day shepherd only to come away anguished. How am I to process these conflicting realities?
Children in our communities need to be brought to Jesus. In addition to the home, the church is the intended setting for that meeting to happen. As a child, I trusted Christ as my Savior because of the faithful witness of loving parents and of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School teachers, children’s Bible club leaders, and an older couple who babysat me. I could not have asked for a more nurturing and safe environment in which to have my life touched by Jesus. That ideal is what the church is designed to provide. Statistics tell us that better than 75 percent of people who receive Christ as Savior do so as children. Our churches must fulfill their assigned responsibility.
The standard by which we must carry out that gospel assignment is the ideal that Jesus exemplified. No child must ever be violated. No parental trust must ever be breached. When in the presence of a child, Jesus posted notice on the person who, under the guise of ministry, damages the fragile faith of a developing believer: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, NASB). Those are chilling words coming from the One Who blamelessly loves and defends little ones.
As a dad, a grandpa, and a pastor, I must grapple with the conflicting realities of trusting others enough to allow them to minister, but being demanding enough to ensure safeguards to keep children from being harmed. The ideal of trust that Jesus illustrated with a child must be balanced by the skepticism of maturity that recognizes how deeply and profoundly sin has a presence in lives.
How I wish the joy depicted in my family picture continues for years ahead. I pray the Lord will protect my grandchildren. I pray the Lord will protect our churches.
John Greening is national representative for the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.