Dad’s Lantern

Dear Friends:

This is the second message in a series about objects that shape our experience.

ar-ti-fact n. An object produced or shaped by human workmanship; especially, a simple tool, weapon or ornament of archeological or historical interest.

The tired man pauses in the warm August night and scoops a handful of cold water from the well standpipe. He savors it and then splashes another handful on his sweaty face. Mosquitoes whine and seek their feast on his exposed neck and arms. Moths flutter and bang off the chimney of his kerosene lantern.

He is irrigating a field of cotton at midnight. Throughout the sweltering day, he had labored to construct a new dairy barn.

The man is my father, although I won’t be born for another six years. He  leases this field and grows the cotton to provide extra income that his family needs. There is church school tuition, music lesson fees, and medical bills for his children. It is a father’s duty to provide and he never questions that obligation.

Many would ask whether the church school tuition and music lessons are necessary. He doesn’t. He and his wife accept as a sacred responsibility the preparation of their children for eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. That means family worship, prayer, and setting a good example of love and faithfulness. It means giving his children an education in the values of the gospel. The music lessons are about worship. He knows of no higher calling than to worship our Savior and Lord, but he cannot conceive of worship without music — “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . . .”

He is not a rich man nor the son of a rich man. He has no aspirations that his children be wealthy. He wants them to be men and women of integrity and kindness, faithful to their God and to their families and friends. He wants them to serve others with the compassion and wisdom of Christ. So the church school is non-negotiable and he is working his cotton crop by the light of his hissing lantern long past midnight.

By the time I came along, our family had moved to the coast. Dad still used the lantern sometimes to work past dark on houses that he was building.

Mom and dad were persons of great intellectual curiosity. They saw Christian education as a beginning for their children, not an end in itself. “The fear (paying close, reverent attention) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding . . . .” (Ps. 111:10).  They encouraged us to read widely and well. We were read to and taught to read early on and books were constant companions for each of us. It was their belief that a life of faith should lead to the development of the mind that is God’s gift to each of his children.

That home education is the key to a successful experience in church school. Many parents want the school to hold a standard of conduct and profession of faith that the parents don’t uphold at home. Christianity is about life and it shouldn’t be compartmentalized. Dad’s lantern stands for that proposition. His beliefs, his work and his children’s education were all pointing toward God. Nothing is wasted in that educational view. Whether it is math, social studies, spelling, science or learning to live in family and friendships, God is present and learning is his gift and his possibility.

There are many in this secular world who think that such an outlook is too parochial or”too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” They misunderstand.

The first witness of any follower of Christ is to do an excellent job at their chosen work and to help people. Christian education gives a motivation to do this which is as simple as “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19), “For Christ’s love compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14).

Christian education is an instrument, not an end in itself. It may lead one to faith, but it is not a substitute for faith.

Faith is an individual decision to trust and follow God and therefore requires a personal and voluntary consent to be valid. Christian schools should always seek academic excellence because that is honoring of the Creator, but academic excellence does not of itself produce faith. The schools may point students toward faith and their instruction will likely inform shape that faith and give it literacy, but only God’s spirit can engender faith in one’s heart. Human attempts to manufacture faith inevitably leave the smudges of human fingerprints on the heart, broken spirits and withered souls. The virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that are associated with a vibrant life of faith are “fruits of the Spirit” indicative of a process of growth, not of forced labor (Gal. 5:22-23).

The value-added contribution of Christian education is to teach students about the implications of Jesus Christ and the Gospel for all of life’s activities and eternity. The schools also train and motivate students to serve Christ by serving others with excellence and compassion.

This, however, requires that Christ be faithfully and truthfully portrayed in the classroom and on the playing fields. It is not possible to effectively teach Christ without being Christ-like. The deadly enemy of Christian education is not a lack of resources or the pressures of the secular world. A provident God is adequate to those challenges. The enemy is hypocrisy, the rotten failure to live out the principles of faith and virtue that are being taught. Grace can not be taught through coercion of the will. Love cannot grow strong and true when emotions are manipulated. Spirits cannot be strengthened when fairness is lacking and justice is partial. Minds cannot be developed to the glory of God when evidence is denied for the sake of conformity and appearance. Trust will never develop when it is withheld or given only capriciously.

Christian education is an open window to the possibilities of God who creates, redeems and sustains for no other reason than love. Faith in that God should lead us to want to know more, not less about him and his creation. Faith is the affirmative human response to the leading of God who, from the very beginning, has wanted to direct us to the wonders of his creation and to increase our knowledge (Gen. 2). God trusts that the honest pursuit of truth will lead his children to him (John 8:12, 31-32). A closed mind is a denial of God whose glory is to conceal things in the universe so that it becomes the glory of kings to seek them out (Prov. 25:2)

It is a perversion when faith is interpreted as a halt to the pursuit of truth. This is not to say that things do not become settled in the mind of the believer, but acceptance of Christ as the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) doesn’t mean drawing the blinds against the light. Authorities, whether religious or civil, who shutter the windows of knowledge and close the door to discovery are giving way to the prince of darkness, not the God of light. In God’s light, we see light (Psalm 36:9). I like the way the Apostle Paul draws this point: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

I experienced the blinds being drawn at times in my church school experience. There is always a conflict over whether faith-based education should be about revelation or preservation. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews defined “faith” as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb, 11:1). I was taught this verse as an invitation for learning not a curtailment. Light and sight are inextricably linked.
There is always more to know and the pursuit of that knowledge is God-affirming, not God denying since transformation, renewal and growth are the result of thinking about God (Rom.12:1-2; 2 Cor. 3:17-18).

My education was made possible by my dad who literally carried a light into the darkness to make it so. It was made possible by my mom, a teacher, who at times worked dark nights as a vocational nurse to earn our tuition money. Their light-bearing sacrifices introduced their children to the generosity of spirit, the openness of mind, and the largeness of heart and hope that should characterize education worthy of carrying the name of Christ. It is my honor as their youngest son to represent Christian schools and colleges as a counsel and advocate to keep the light of learning in Christ burning brightly.

There will be many of you who read this who have your own stories of loving sacrifices that blessed you with knowledge and undergirded you with the strength to serve. Wherever Christian education exists stories like this are told by men and women who are thankful to be the legacy of faithful hands and hearts.

Dad’s old Coleman lantern has acquired a patina of rust and its valve is stuck, but the mantle is still shining green. I treasure it and display it in our home. It represents the light of Christ which to me is synonymous with the light of knowledge and the pursuit of truth. Looking at it always evokes gratitude and hope in my heart.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,

Kent

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