by Adrian De Lange, M.Div. ’14
This summer, I was privileged to work with middle school kids on a poorer side of Holland, Michigan. Though they don’t live far from the affluent Grand Rapids suburbs, the kids in this neighborhood have very different lives than most of us in West Michigan’s CRCs. Theirs are stories we have forgotten or those about which we just don’t care. I only met these young people because I led a daytime ministry in their neighborhood church and park—the place they walked to every day to hang out and grab a free lunch.
As I began, I remember expecting my leadership of “Story Time” (the daily half hour Bible study) to be the most challenging part of my job. But we did stop-motion skits about “People Jesus Met”—stories about the poor, the hopeless, and the depressed. Despite my fears, the impromptu skits and my short lessons were well received. Instead, I found the most challenging part of my job in dealing with the older kids—the ones who could say all the right answers and might even call themselves Christians or “good,” but who demonstrated by their lives that they really didn’t know Jesus.
Repeated offenses led to progressively more difficult but increasingly insightful conversations, where I learned a lot about these kids’ family lives—about rejection, dysfunction, and even about physical and substance abuse. As we began wading through the mire of their behavior and self-esteem issues, Exodus 20 continually returned to mind: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” These kids’ actions were their own choice, but also partially results of hate-filled home lives. Parental sins and shortcomings passed noticeably on to their children—even unintentionally—and became painful burdens for the kids to drag along, to hide, or to use against others. It turns out, God’s words in Exodus are not a curse, but a heavy dose of reality, an introduction to faith and lifestyle choices now that have far-reaching consequences.
I hate that I couldn’t force these kids to believe or even behave in a neighborhood hounded by Satan. Yet I was also comforted by God’s presence and peace. I began each day this summer in prayer, knowing that I required divine leading as I taught and served God’s children throughout the day. And especially in communal prayer I was reminded that the playground—and our world—belongs not to Satan, but to God! I struggled most not with how to deal with them, but with the realization that God was dealing with me—and that God remains the only one whose power can break Satan’s seeming stranglehold on any neighborhood. So how can we break the devastating cycle of “the sins of the fathers,” and instead invite families into a faith that actually changes lives? How can we pastors mobilize congregations to care more about our neighbors and neighborhoods, especially the downtrodden?
It starts with my faithfulness—my love for God. God punishes the sins of the fathers for a short time, but he shows love to the obedient and their descendants forever! I taught how Jesus warned his disciples that following him would not be easy—certainly not what I hope or expect! Still, the reminder that God is dealing with me, even while he restores others’ twisted relationships, has served me well this summer. It’s a lesson in hard discipleship I hope to remember.