Re-post: Something You Should Know About Jesus When He Was a Boy

In our culture, twelve is not a noteworthy age. Sixteen is more likely to be celebrated because at that age you can get a driver’s license. At eighteen you can join the armed forces. As well, twenty-one has long been special because it’s celebrated as the age of our maturity.

Our culture recognizes each of these ages to some degree. But age twelve is not among them.

When Jesus lived on earth, it was different. In his Gospel, Luke, the evangelist, first gives details about Jesus’ birth and infancy. Then he reports in abundant detail on the approximate three years of his public ministry which began when he was thirty. But the period between his infancy and maturity is sometimes called the silent years — except for one event when he was twelve.

St. Luke tells his readers that Jesus attended his first Passover in Jerusalem when he reached that age. Why report this event standing alone during those “silent” years?

It is because in Jesus’ times among the Jews, twelve was a very important age. At that age a Jewish boy became known as a “son of the commandment” (later called “bar mitzvah”). A boy’s primary accountability was now to God through obedience to the Torah — the Law.

Some branches of Judaism continue to celebrate the same transition to manhood today. At the event the twelve-year-old lad begins his speech saying, “Today I am a man.” He is now old enough to take part in religious services, to form binding contracts, and to testify before religious courts. Some authorities say he has even reached the minimum age to marry.

So, at twelve years of age Jesus makes the trek along with his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, covering ninety miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Here he sees for the first time the magnificent Herod’s temple, the throngs of pilgrims surging back and forth on its streets, the aged and bearded teachers holding forth in the temple’s courts. As we learn, his interest and involvement in the religious aspect of this great Jewish festival was keen for a lad of his age.

But the festival was over all too soon and his parents along with relatives and neighbors began walking the dusty roads back to Nazareth. At the end of the first day they searched for him among the company only to discover Jesus was not in the caravan. They were forced to turn back to the city. There they searched for three days for their son. They found him in the temple, listening to the teachers, asking and answering questions. You would think this an unlikely place and activity for a boy of his age to spend long periods of time.

When his parents found him and expressed their disappointment over the delay he had caused, he gave an unexpected reply: Why were you searching for me he asked. Did you not know I have to be in my father’s house?

There are a variety of explanations for this episode and why it stands alone to reflect his life as a twelve-year-old. For me, the most likely explanation is this: it was Jesus’ first awakening as to who his eternal Father really was. It was the beginning of his understanding of why he was in the world, and the beginning of his grasp of the meaning of his incarnation as the Son of God.

Whatever the case, it calls our attention to the spiritual development of sons and daughters today. Twelve-year-olds are more susceptible to deep truths about God than we may reckon. It’s the approximate age for their spiritual awakening.

Perhaps this insight should focus us all the more on the capacity any twelve-year-old in our circles has for religious knowledge.

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Sex Education in Sexually Confusing Times (Part Two)

The Garden of Eden by Erastus Salisbury Field, circa 1860.

In the past seventy years our culture has made major social and legal shifts, purportedly to allow greater personal freedom to all. But these changes have created a quagmire that increasingly bogs society down and brings confusion to civic life.

Consider some of the shifts: traditional marriage reduced in priority, easy divorce, living together unmarried, same-sex marriage, casual sex without commitment, addiction to pornography, abortion as a “convenience,” and now transgender experimentation.

Where should Christians start in foundational teaching of our children on this subject?

For starters, we must remember that in the Christian community the Bible continues to be the primary sourcebook on what we must believe and how we must live. It is an ancient book but not scorned by wise people who find its counsel on such matters surprisingly contemporary.

The Bible does not say anything about techniques regarding sex, or the science of conception, or the practice of “safe sex” but it gives a good foundation to believers on the basics of reality and morality in this arena.

Consider how the story of creation is put forward at the threshold of the Scriptures (Genesis 1:1): “In the beginning …” There was a beginning. God was there already and he spoke. He didn’t need a box of tools because by the power of his word creation sprang forth with its unmeasured vastness and wonder. And, at the outset, it was very good.

Think of this introductory passage as a hymn to creation. Here is its climax: Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:26). We are created to be stewards.

It gets even better: Notice that in the verse that comes next the word “create” is used three times. Notice also that God creates two distinct genders — male and female. Neither more, nor fewer: So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God created he them, male and female he created them (1:27).

For Christians, this is where sex education begins, in the simple but profound declaration made by the God of creation. That’s why we respect our bodies and give God thanks for his provision of the fundamentals of our beings. These simple foundational points can be taught early in Sunday school, and especially in Sunday-morning services when God is worshiped in truth.

Chapter 2 of Genesis tells the creation story differently from chapter 1 but without contradiction. It begins with God’s creation of Adam and his assignment to care for the Lord’s park-like garden. Then comes a further provision: The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (2:18). This picks up on a theme in chapter 1 cited above: male and female created he them.

The Lord God then created animals and brought them to Adam to see what he would name them. But among them there was no creature suited to be the helper the Lord God had promised. There follows the story of how Adam got his wife so widely known but never boring to repeat with color. And from that ancient presentation there are profound hints about love and sexual attraction today.

This opening of the Bible does not end with a clean, idealistic account of the sanctity of marriage. It is equally candid about fallen man’s misuse and abuse of God’s holy gift. The issues of bigamy, polygamy, adultery, fornication, scandalous unfaithfulness to covenant — all these are addressed but never approved. The Bible gives us Jesus’ word that nothing in succeeding centuries erases God’s intention as addressed in the story of creation (Matthew 19:3-12).

Our Lord calls his followers to purity of heart (Matthew 5:8). The Apostle Paul exhorts believers to purity and fidelity in the strongest of words: But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people (Ephesians 5:3).

The story of creation twice told ends with these affirming words: That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife and they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). The Bible has much more to say about our sexuality but it all begins here.

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Sex Education in Sexually Confusing Times (Part One)

The task of sex education is to help growing children, at the level of their understanding, to know that their sexuality undergirds and shapes their view of the world.

Their sexuality is not an aspect of being human that can be separated out and experienced independently. It is integral to the whole of their humanness.

Of course, there is a case to be made for the decisions about sex education to be the purview of the family and faith communities — and by a school only with parental consent.

But leaving that question aside to deal with the general matter of children’s education, the issue is not so much what information is taught as what assumptions and belief system underlies the information.

Society no longer universally holds to the Christian belief that human beings are far more than animals who are socially advanced and intricately developed. Biblical teaching is that all humans are unique creatures among God’s creative order bearing his image and accountable to him for their behavior.

Again in the general case, though with exceptions that prove the rule, a family of mother, father and children, provides the best environment. Wholesome sex education begins in the loving, respectful attitude of parents to one another and the children from infancy onward.

That doesn’t mean family relationships are always free from stress but that love and respect govern or “reign”. And it doesn’t mean that sex education is necessarily substandard in homes limited by the deprivation of one parent.

Christian sex education is based on the revelation that God created humankind to be male and female, each bearing fully his image (Genesis 1:26,27). From birth onward this differentiation of humans into male and female has serious implications. Sex education should help us to understand and rejoice in what God has created us to be.

Sex education can be enhanced in the home by the use of Biblically-based literature, videos and whatever other Christian resources are recommended by a denomination’s resources center. It’s best to let growing children acquaint themselves at times privately with whatever is made available to them, and as well at times in conversation with parents.

The intimate aspects of sexuality may thus be taught in a gradual way according to a growing child’s ability to understand. The Christian faith maintains that there is a mystery and metaphysical and spiritual aspect to sex and this must be respected in growing children.

Modelling is the means by which children are best helped to develop a sense of responsibility concerning their sexuality.

Because the sex act gives intense pleasure, some secular minds tend to treat it as nothing more than the satisfaction of a physical appetite. For such persons, the psychological and spiritual aspects may be ignored or devalued.

Those who promote such a view seem concerned primarily that sex be practiced safely, using the best of modern technology to avoid sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy.

Christian wisdom is contrary to such a view. The Scriptures hold that sex within marriage is honorable while sex outside of marriage is labeled adultery or fornication — each regarded as serious sins (Hebrews 13:4). The Bible speaks forthrightly against premarital or extramarital sex as follows:

But among you there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality (promiscuous behavior) or any kind of impurity (the wider range of illicit sexual conduct) or greed (insatiability) because these are improper for God’s holy people (Ephesians 5:3).

In this very personal arena of our humanness the grace of God (His undeserved generosity) must be emphasized. It is His grace that enables sexual purity. And for those who have failed or are failing, he offers the grace of  repentance and forgiveness. In Christ, wholesome attitudes toward sex can be recovered and purity restored.

Photo credit: Márcio Binow da Silva (via

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Do Adults Sometimes Get Stuck in Early Childhood?

Yesterday, a 30-year-old man, large and sturdy of build, bearded and with a shock of dark hair falling to his shoulders, was featured several times on TV News sources.

On one channel, he was with his parents, on another sitting on a recliner in the basement apartment of their home, and on yet another he appeared in a courtroom to receive  a ruling from a judge.

The issue was this: his parents wanted him to move out of their basement and get his own apartment, but they couldn’t dislodge him. Earlier he had lived away from them for more than a year-and-a-half, during which time he fathered a child. He had come back home to live, having been denied custody of the child.

His parents offered him $1100 to help him relocate and settle but he refused the offer.

As a last resort, the parents were asking for help from the law. The judge, while allowing a reasonable amount of time to make arrangements, ordered him: Move out!

I hold the dynamic view of human development — that life has stages. Nature itself decrees that each normal person must move through these stages. We are newborns, then infants, toddlers, and so forth, all the way to old age.  We develop in each stage for a time, and then must develop forward to the next. No stage is a stopping place.

And when we reach adulthood, as mature sailors on the sea of life we must pull our own oars even when it would be easier to lay back and depend on someone else’s energies. Taking responsibility for oneself is required in order to have meaning and joy in adulthood.

On yesterday’s television there was no obvious evidence of animosity between parents and son. In fact, one commentator spoke of the son’s love for his mother though it was not evident in the story. But one-sided conflict did appear evident in the man’s refusal to move out at her request.

It makes me reflect on Kathleen’s and my parental involvement at varying levels with three generations numbering 21 offspring. First it was four children, then seven grandchildren and now ten great-grandchildren.

Before they can talk or walk, little ones show on their faces and by their responses their typical reactions to people and their likes and dislikes. And if observed carefully from infancy onward, it has appeared to me that those traits tend to carry over to some degree when they arrive in adulthood.

Examples: One child has a sunny disposition from the start and this remains his or her nature growing up; another is unusually shy around all but close relatives. He or she learns excellent social skills yet remains an introvert.

One child is full of self-confidence; another takes considerable encouragement to embrace new challenges. One tends to be somewhat “contrary;” another is easier to convince to go along.

Whatever their other traits, they all seem to share to one degree or another the ability to manipulate, to deceive, even that nasty impulse to punish parents when their wishes are denied.

Likewise, they all, at a minimum, have flashes of warmth and generosity toward parents. In a word, their range of responses is wide. If development by the time of their arrival at young adulthood is as hoped, their loyalty to family should be firm.

These diverse elements seen in every child are manifestations of both the image of God in them, and the damage of the Fall of mankind.

Good parenting includes helping children to recognize and express their image-of-God traits but at the same time to recognize, acknowledge and restrain their traits bequeathed by the Fall.

Noting and coaching on the latter is sometimes quite neglected or overlooked — with consequences. God’s grace, however, when acknowledged and asked for, can harness good traits and mitigate the damage of the Fall.

One might guess that the apparent narcissism manifested by the thirty-year-old bearded man might have been in evidence early in childhood and through the teen years but was not adequately confronted by community and family, and worked with. Or that narcissism may have been so resistant that all efforts made to teach him to give others in his company their dignity had failed.

As for our growing family of 21 offspring, from infancy onward we have not only wanted them to be honest, respectful, obedient, and accountable. Even more, we wanted them all to know Christ as we have known him. We pray to this end every day.

None of this simply happens. Quality of character must be trained into children, and of course they must be introduced to the Lord Jesus and reminded of his call on their life to salvation and discipleship.

Let’s hope the thirty-year-old man being interviewed on television makes the move to his own apartment uneventfully and learns even yet how to work and otherwise navigate the rapids of life while giving others their dues — all as a mature adult.

Hope springs eternal and a loving God wants all humans to move through the seasons of life and in doing so properly to love themselves, and also to love others and contribute to their wellbeing.

On the horizontal plane it would appear this young man’s first step in that breakthrough might be a proper love and respect for his parents.

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Is Religion Good for Growing Kids?

4934176625_fd548deea7_m“Religiously aware adolescents who feel connected to a higher power are 40 percent less likely to abuse substances, 68 percent less likely to battle depression, and 80 percent less likely to engage in at-risk sexual behavior.” It surprised me recently to read this information on

The statistics come from the work of Lisa Miller of Columbia University. She is quoted in an article, “Spiritual IQ In A Secular Age” by Betsy VanDenBerghe, and carried on Real Clear Religion during the last week of April, 2016.

My experience makes this information seem plausible. Still I was surprised to see it because up until the 1970s or thereabouts adding spiritual aspects into this human developmental research was viewed skeptically if not with outright hostility. In particular, influences from “the Christian church” were dismissed or denigrated.

And, today in some respects, the resistance to religion as a positive force in human development seems even stronger. Think of calls for the removal of “In God We Trust” from American currency and the Ten Commandments from public spaces; the prohibition of prayer at public events; the legalization of abortion; and the widespread claim that morality is relative and only subject to personal choice.

It is no wonder that Millennials and others are falling away from the church in significant numbers when such negatives are arrayed against their training five days a week. The above article does not, however, promote any particular religion. Specifically, it does not stump for Christianity. In fact, the article’s studied neutrality in that regard makes it all the more interesting.

Lisa Miller writes, “It is scientifically plausible that human beings, particularly teen agers and young adults are wired for transcendence and possess inborn spirituality that must be used – or lost.”

Christians can correlate such insights with theological beliefs the Christian church has held through the ages. For example, the Apostle John writes of the incarnation of Jesus, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Every person! Methodists and others would call this “prevenient grace” – the grace that goes before and is actively drawing each person toward God even before the attraction is personally recognized and saving grace is offered.

But how should this prevenient grace be nourished in children? Blessed are the children who hear their first prayers at Mother’s knees, or sit on father’s lap even before understanding develops to hear the Bible read daily with the family. Also blessed is the teenager who is sent off to school day after day with a short parental prayer recognizing that God is over all.

Even doubly blessed are single parents who must shoulder the load of the religious training of little ones alone but who do it resolutely.

And blessed are children and young people who receive the benefits of regularly meeting in a company of Christians who gather weekly to worship God. We might say in secular terms, “to feel connected to a higher power.”

Add to these bedtime prayers and easy discussions at meal time. These practices will develop easily with parents who have a heart for God. “Out of the heart the mouth speaketh”.

It’s encouraging to be reminded from outside the Christian community that children and adolescents have an easily-awakened sense of the transcendent. For Christians it’s an encouragement from a secular publication from work at Columbia University to nurture in children a Christian awareness of God in Christ, and his call to salvation and discipleship.

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Re-post: When Jesus Was Twelve

Boy in suit. Photo credit: janvanderkerken (via once said to my grandson, Zachary, when he was twelve years old, “Let’s go for a walk.” We started together down his lane and by the time we got to the sidewalk 300 yards away we were moving at a brisk pace, side by side. I looked down and suddenly realized that Zach was self-consciously matching my strides step for step. That had never happened before. I knew it was an early sign of approaching manhood.

We don’t make much of the age twelve in our culture. Sixteen is an important birthday because in many jurisdictions it means a person that age has the legal right to drive a car. Eighteen in some states means one is old enough to drink alcohol within the law. And 21 has long been regarded as the age of full maturity. Each is an important year, but not twelve.

It was different in Jesus’ culture. St. Luke tells us much about the birth of Jesus. Then he reports in great detail about his public appearances approximately 30 years later. As for the years between, they are sometimes called the silent years — except for one event. St. Luke breaks into the gap to report that Jesus attended his first passover in Jerusalem when he reached the age of twelve. Why does he tell us details of this and no other event during those years?

During Jesus’ times a Jewish boy became known as a “son of the commandment” (bar mitzvah) at the age of twelve. That is, a boy’s primary accountability was now to God through obedience to the Torah. The same transition to manhood is celebrated in some branches of Judaism in our day. The lad begins his speech saying, “Today I am a man.” He is now old enough to take part in religious services, to form binding contracts, and to testify before religious courts. Some say he has even reached the minimum age to marry. In Jesus’ times, a twelve-year-old, standing at the threshold of manhood, could attend his first passover in Jerusalem.

Despite the long years of silence, we can fill in some of the gaps about Jesus’ life by inference. We know God chose a devout young woman, Mary, to be his mother. When she received from the angel, Gabriel, the news of the coming miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, she responded, “I belong to the Lord body and soul, let it happen as you say.” At the home of her cousin Elizabeth this expectant mother sang a song laced with Old Testament content: “My soul glorifies the Lord/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …” She was in all likelihood not yet out of her teens when she gave birth to the baby Jesus.

And Joseph, the man who was to be Jesus’ earthly father, was a “righteous man,” a man of character. When he learned of Mary’s curious pregnant condition his first impulse was to cancel the engagement — actually to divorce her, though in a way that would not embarrass her unduly. However, an angel intervened and Joseph, apparently the kind of man who was open to the spiritual realm, got the angel’s message: It’s okay; God is in this.

We know that Mary and Joseph were serious practitioners of the faith of Israel. They brought the baby Jesus to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. It was a ritual duty. Moreover, they made a trek of 70 or so miles from Nazareth to get Jesus to that first passover in Jerusalem. As well, they had an ordered family life in which, we are told, Jesus as a teen was obedient to them. And Luke tells us that many years later as an adult, Jesus went to the synagogue to worship on the sabbath, “as was his custom.” We can be quite sure he had been taught the custom in his home.

And as for his first Passover in Jerusalem, we learn something very important about Jesus. Recall that his parents were alarmed, at the end of their first day of trekking back to Nazareth, to discover that he was not among the pilgrim band of relatives and friends. They had to return to Jerusalem to search for him, finding the lad in the temple. What was he doing there? Listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Onlookers were amazed at his “understanding and his answers.”

Was this knowledge supernatural, setting Jesus apart from all other Jewish boys? Is that what it meant for him to be “the Incarnate God”? A passage in the ancient Jewish Talmud may hint at the answer. The essence of this passage reaches back before the times of Jesus, and it lays down these stages of a Jewish boy’s development: “At five he must begin the sacred studies; at ten he must set himself to learning the tradition; at thirteen he must know the whole of the law of Yahweh and practice its requirements . . .”

For Jesus to be in every respect human as well as in every respect divine he had to experience growing up as other boys of his times did. Twelve years of age must have been the time when he began to be aware of his unique relationship to his Heavenly Father. When he sat at the feet of the teachers he obviously surprised onlookers by his knowledge of the Jewish faith — likely learned in his home and from instruction at the local synagogue school.

How did Jesus respond when his parents finally found him in the temple and chided him for the inconvenience he had caused? In surprise he asks, “Didn’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?”

Think of it: All this at twelve years of age — a rich knowledge of God’s law and an awakening awareness of God as his Father in a unique way! It makes one think of the capacity a twelve-year-old must have for religious knowledge, understanding, and the experience of God! I surely think of it. I think of it when I recall that memorable walk with my twelve-year-old grandson and how he walked with me on the verge of his own manhood.

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What Made the Prodigal Son Go Bad? Part 2 of 2

Last week, I reviewed Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son as some readers today might interpret it. In short, I pointed out that a few may explain the prodigal’s choice to leave home, and the trouble this got him into, in a modern way. They might suggest that he went wrong because his family situation was defective. They might even paint him as a person victimized by life.

Then I asked why Jesus told the story without any of this kind of excuse-making, and I suggested that I’d give my opinion this week.

I grant that when it comes to the less-than-perfect environments we parents create for our children, we are all in the equation, without question. But — after secondary reasons are considered — the ultimate reason for the bad turns children sometimes take can be traced to what goes on in the command center of their own inner beings. It is that deliberate, out-of-sight, self-determining choice-maker over which they alone have a limited but still deciding authority.

There’s a story about identical twins who, it is said, were drawn into a study of what affects people’s outcomes in life. One twin, a homeless man was camped out near a sidewalk grate in a large city. He was asked how he explained this outcome. He said, “If you had known my father you would understand; he was an alcoholic.” The other twin, a businessman who had overcome great odds to succeed, was asked how he explained the outcome of his life. He answered, “If you had known my father you would understand; he was an alcoholic.”

Identical twins. A common parentage. After factoring in possible slight temperamental differences, and possible subtle relational differences, we come to the critical factor of personal choices. There, the differences are vast.

If the Christian Scriptures teach us anything about outcomes for this world or the next it is that in the final analysis we are all accountable for our choices. That’s why Jesus told the story the way he did.

The son appealed to his father brazenly for the big handout. That was a choice. He packed up and left home — a direction-setting choice. He took up with bad company, also a choice. Each choice came easier; each choice tilted the trajectory of his life toward a downward spiral.

Years ago when I began to hear the heart-breaking stories of children who had wandered into the “far country” of dissolute living I grew tired of the question, “What did the parents do wrong?” I grant that it can be an admissible question. We parents by our teaching and example can make it easier or harder for our children to make good, life-enhancing choices.

But I felt impatient with the question when it seemed to overlook the direction-setting choices the children themselves had made. After all, God created us to make choices! Vocational choices have vocational consequences, marital choices, marital consequences, moral choices, moral consequences, and faith choices eternal consequences.

There is bad news and good news in the story of the Prodigal Son. The bad news is that he chose to follow a path that led down the road to gnawing hunger in a pig pen. The good news is that in his impoverishment he came to his senses, took responsibility for outcomes, and started the long trek home to his father. He was moved to say to his Father (forgetting all the assumed offenses he might claim were committed against him) “Father, I have sinned.”

The Bible calls it repentance — the radical changing of the very set of the mind; the acceptance of personal responsibility; the big turn-around with resolution; and the pointing of life in another direction. It is the grace-enabled I word — a choice that arrests the downward spiral and turns the trajectory of life in an upward direction again.

(Note: I have taken from the story of the Prodigal Son only one element in the story to make one point. In this blog I have not explored the deeper and more complex theological question of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the primacy of grace. Save those for another day.)

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