Sounding out the Words
At four, my daughter begged me to teach her to read. Anticipating her enjoying all the books I had as a little girl, knowing her imagination already conjured scenarios far beyond the ordinary scope of preschool, I was delighted to do as she asked. Soon, I found a book that promised to make her a reader in 100 easy lessons.
She took the alphabet she already knew and began sounding out words, from lesson one. True to the book’s promise, Becca was reading by the time she completed it. She entered school the following year reading at a sixth grade level, which in hindsight might have been a mistake, considering how much it annoyed her teachers when she sat and read during their lessons.
Becca never had to go back and recite her abc’s before beginning the lessons. She already knew those. After the original lessons, she didn’t require review of each letter sound before she took off reading and learning the next ones. Once she had the foundational tools, she knew what to do with them.
At some point, she even began to be the teacher to her two little sisters.
The writer of Hebrews seems to want such a book.
“There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word.
You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.
So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God.
You don’t need further instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.” (Hebrews 5.11-6.3)
How difficult would it be to read anything if you had to go back over your abc’s every time? How impossible would it be to move forward and read more difficult works if you had to sound out every letter every time?
That’s exactly what the writer of Hebrews is trying to get her/his hearers to comprehend. How can you hope to grow in your faith if you have to be reminded all the time about the basics? If you spend your days relying on the pastor to feed you, how will you ever learn to feed yourself?
If you’re twenty years old and still reading One Fish Two Fish, how will you ever comprehend the glories of Les Miserables or Jane Austen?
The Kids’ Table
I remember what it was like to sit at the kids’ table every holiday when our extended family came to visit. I felt small, unnecessary to the gathering, set aside while the adults talked about important things. I longed to graduate (and as the youngest of seven, and almost the youngest of all the cousins, that didn’t happen for a long, long time).
Like my daughter, I longed for the world to be open to me that only older people seemed to know, understand, and enjoy. I wanted the JRR Tolkien of Thanksgiving conversation, and I had to settle for Twilight.
Who wants to eat rice cereal and formula when there is prime rib on the table?
According to this Scripture, I guess we do sometimes.
“You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. . . . So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again.”
That last line implies that the people reading this letter have, in fact, been instructed. They are not ignorant of the basics of belonging to Christ, They simply have no interest in taking the initiative to go further. They are not babies, but they still love their pacifiers.
They did get it. They just don’t want to take the energy to apply it.
They lack motivation to go deeper with God.
This problem has lasted through the millennia. One of the biggest issues of the American church, at least, is its emphasis on showmanship and “bigger is better.” As a result, the average churchgoer feels no need to feed himself—that’s what the pastor is for. The better the entertainment, the more inspirational the sermon, the more complacent we can become to making the effort to chew that steak rather than suck on a bottle of milk.
Sadly, according to Barna research, over half of churchgoers also say they do not experience God in their worship hour. Coincidence?
Skye Jethani in his book Divine Commodity explains the dangers of this mentality:
“We create experiences that entertain, give us emotional highs, make us feel good, and then wonder why we can’t sustain faith in hard times over the long haul. This philosophy of spiritual formation through the consumption of external experiences creates worship junkies — Christians who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that does not fade.”
(And beware, pastors, if we learned anything from Little Shop of Horrors, it’s that “feed me Seymour” can bite us back. Once we start down the road of giving people (or man-eating plants) what they want, they usually want more.)
“Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.”
The writer hits on a key concept here to discipleship. Training. The person who has trained becomes mature in whatever he or she trains at. If you want to run a marathon, you don’t sit and watch videos of people running while eating cherry-frosted poptarts. You run.
You run every day, a little farther, a little faster each time. You run until you become a mature runner—knowing how to read the road, the weather, and your body to intuit what to do next.
If you want to be like Jesus, you don’t watch a preacher or a worship leader once a week and hope the high will last you through the week when those tough right and wrong choices come up at work, school, or home.
You learn yourself. You feed yourself the word of God. You keep in step with the Spirit. Every day. And every day, you go a little farther, until you know how to read the times, the Scripture, and your own soul well enough to intuit what to do next. You learn “the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.”
What is this wright and wrong we’re supposed to be becoming mature enough (whole, purposeful) to learn how to discern and create?
“The purposes of God in the gospel are focused on God’s longing to put the world to rights, and to put people to rights as part of that work. What the writer here longs for is that people should become proficient in understanding and using the entire message of God’s healing, restoring, saving justice. He wants them to know their way around the whole message of scripture and of the gospel, to be able to handle this message in relation to their own lives, their communities and the wider world, and to see how all the different parts of God’s revelation fit together, apply to different situations and have the power to transform lives and situations.” N.T. Wright
Like the readers of Hebrews, we also can be guilty of wanting only a watered down gospel, a small bit of God—a bite-sized salvation that we can consume quickly and neatly. We don’t necessarily want a gospel that demands we learn to discern justice, healing, shalom truth.
Is it possible much of our current discord in the Christian world stems from an unwillingness to push toward maturity? Could our desire to maintain our first understanding of God, no matter how immature, create the disharmony we see around us, as Christians tear into one another over complicated issues they are nevertheless certain they understand accurately?
We love our personal savior and personal relationship with Jesus. It’s warm and comfy. We don’t really want the gospel to encompass a whole lot more of the kingdom than we ever dreamed. We don’t want to have to rethink when presented with an idea or a person that seems to contradict what we have determined.
We like milk. Of course, warm milk has one property I use often at night. It puts you to sleep.
My daughter went on to read all the books she could find. Those little sisters she helped teach did the same. They competed on teams that read books and challenged one another to read more, learn more, become more because of what they read.
Like those teammates, “let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. . . God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.”