[This is the third in a series of guest blogs by Abby Thornton from the Children, Youth, and New Kind of Christianity conference being held this week in Washington, D.C.]
When I taught about the books of the Bible this spring, my kids at church were surprised to learn that letters are the most common type of biblical literature. It’s true: 22 of the Bible’s 66 books are letters penned to young Christian communities who were seeking a Christian path in a largely non-Christian culture.
Though the Children, Youth, and New Kind of Christianity conference is certainly not attempting to add a new book to the scripture, its organizers did gift us with a holy letter this afternoon. When they recruited well-known speaker and professor Tony Campolo to share with us, they asked him to do something he had never before done for a presentation — to write a letter, to his grandchildren, based on his experience with God and how it relates to the social issues they will face. Perched on a stool, he modeled in the eighteen minutes alloted for this task a vital way to share personal faith.
Campolo wrote eloquently of his struggle to understand how the Gospel was relevant to what he called his two major life questions: what it meant to be a fully actualized human being, and what he was supposed to do with his life. He sought a full, vibrant life, yet was plagued by guilt and anxiety. Would the dark parts of his past come back to haunt him? Would he be in the right place at the right time for his future to unfold as it needed to? As he reached his college years, Campolo encountered responses to these things in the scripture. Campolo shared with his grandchildren that he “was lucky to have been raised in a biblically saturated environment.” Now, however, he wonders about those not growing up in such an environment — what will they draw upon without scripture woven into their deepest beings?
Campolo wrote at length of his faith’s impact on his life’s mission and calling. After beginning to find freedom from worries about the past and anxieties about the future, he was finally able to develop a rare awareness of the here and now. “NOW is the day of salvation,” Campolo reflected — and freed to be in the present, “I’ve grown to be aware of the sacredness of what was ordinary before.” Now, he could experience God’s creation as sacramental in ways that feed his soul and nurture passions to help rescue and the environment. Now, he could connect with other people as sacred, compelling him to address human need and defend the other when injustice is carried out through discrimination, violence, or war. Sin, for him, was redefined — no longer was it a violation of some lofty rule, but “whatever diminishes the humanity and sacredness of the other person.” This realization not only gave Campolo the answer to what he was called to do with his life, but “is what, little by little, is humanizing me — though I’m not there yet.”
Campolo’s letter was rich, honest, and compelling — and I wondered what it would be like to be one of his grandchildren, just beginning to find my way in this strange way called faith, receiving such a composition. Perhaps they would feel somewhat like the early Christians felt — that finally they’d heard from someone who has wrestled with these things, too, who could help them find their way. I remember the way it felt to get mail as a child, no matter what it was. I wonder how my pursuit of God might have been impacted by receiving not just a postcard, but such a true piece of someone I respected and loved.
This got my head spinning: what if all of us wrote letters like this? Granted, we probably could not do it with the depth or eloquence of a Tony Campolo … but then again, maybe we could. If we were to write such letters not just to our children or grandchildren, but to the children of our church, what would we say? What would we share of what we know of God and how it impacts the life we now live — and the life they are endeavoring to live on earth? Would we have anything to say to them beyond platitudes, from the depth of authentic experience? Would we be able to say, “Yes, my relationship with God has changed the shape of the life I live on this earth, what I care about, and how I see the world” — and would we be able to articulate how?
The early church nurtured faith and formed its young believers by writing letters. What new movement of the Spirit might take place if we, with candor and clarity, now chose to do the same? How we are seeking to share the story of how God has transformed us in personal, transparent ways?
[Abby Thornton is pastor of Broadneck Baptist Church in Anapolis, MD. She writes youth Bible study curriculum for Gather ‘Round, a joint publication of the Mennonite Church and Church of the Brethren; and has written adult curriculum materials for Smyth and Helwys, Cokesbury, and the United Church of Christ. A number of participants are tweeting from the conference: the Twitter stream is #cynkc.]