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February 15, 2009


Questions to Ponder:  What Shall We Teach Our Children?

Deuteronomy 6:4-7


            How many of you have great-grandchildren?  How many of you have grandchildren?  How many of you have children?  If you raised your hand for the first two questions, you ought to raise your hand on the third one, as well.  How many of you were ever a child?  Today’s message is for everyone.  It is a sermon for our church.  I am speaking to parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, teachers, those who have no children of their own, and any person who nurtures children.

We have been considering Questions to Ponder each week, and I have been taking a question from Scripture.  You will notice that the text before us today does not pose a question per se.  The question actually came from a class for parents I have been teaching each Sunday morning for the last several weeks.  On the first day of class, I asked members of the class to write down several questions they had about parenting.  One person wrote, What are the most important things for us to teach our children?  That is the question I pose to you today.

What shall we teach our children?  The passage of Scripture I want us to read together, Deuteronomy 6:4-7, answers that question.  These particular verses are called the Shema.  The Hebrew word Shema means “pay attention” or “listen up.”  The passage begins with a call for us to pay attention to something that is extremely important.  To put it in terms of the United States Navy, we would say, “Now hear this.  Now hear this.”  I would like to read this Scripture for your hearing, which comes from one of the sermons of Moses.  Hear now the Word of God.


Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 


            This is the Word of God for the people of God. 

            What shall we teach our children?  Some years ago during what seems like the “Dim Ages” now, I led numerous marriage enrichment retreats, parenting retreats, and family retreats.  On one occasion, I was to speak to a group of parents about the task of parenting.  Clare had prepared an early supper, and our family was all seated together around a big round table that we still use in our breakfast room.  I decided to ask my children how parents should respond to their children and what parents should know about rearing children.  

I started with Betsy because she was the youngest.  “Betsy, what do you think I should tell the parents tonight?”

            She answered, “Dad, just tell them to love their children.”

            “Kris, what do you think I should tell the parents?”

            “Dad, tell them they have to teach their children to obey.”

            “Scott, what do you think I should tell them?”

            “Dad, tell them their children must learn to read and get a good education.”

            “Erik, what do you suggest I tell these parents tonight?”

            “Tell them to teach their children how to think, not just to go along with the crowd.”

            “Mike, what do you think I ought to tell the group tonight?”

            “Dad, I think you ought to send somebody else.”

            You might guess by his answer that he was a teenager at the time.  I proposed, “Mike, why don’t you go with me tonight?  Why don’t you tell the parents what you think they need to know?”

            Mike was a little surprised by my offer, but he took me up on it.  Together, we went to talk to these parents.  I can tell you that the parents were surprised when I explained our plan and told them how we came to that arrangement. 

            I was absolutely astounded that Mike told them many of the concepts that I had planned to mention.  In fact, he shared with them the responses that his own siblings had given at the supper table.  Of course, I did a lot of backfilling and explaining in greater detail.  He did not go nearly the length of time the parents expected.  The session was good for those parents.  It was also good for me and my son.

            Each answer our children gave to my question was age appropriate.  Their responses are exactly what you would expect children at those particular ages to say.  Now they are all adults, and I am so proud of all of them.  I am especially proud of their mother.  When people comment on my children, I always say, “You know, they have a very fine mother.”  I guess maybe the day after Valentine’s Day is a good time for me to say that my wife is a remarkable person.  What a blessing she has been in my life and in the lives of our children.

            What shall we teach our children?  Clare and I learned a lot about parenting along the way.  Perhaps we did a better job with some of our younger children than we did with the older children.  We learned from our older children.  Some parents, however, are somewhat burned out before they get to the younger ones.  They may allow the younger children to grow up like weeds, like stray cats, because they have given up on the task of parenting. 

One of the responsibilities of parenting is to be persistent.  Do not assume that parenting is going to end just because your children leave home.  They might very well return.  The task of parenting never ends.  It goes right on into grandparenting.  My dad would likely say that it goes right on into great-grandparenting.  I think sometimes that I understand why guppies eat their young.  Have you ever thought about that? 

One of the rewards we get as parents through our persistence and our endurance is that we get to have grandchildren.  They are a great blessing. I love being a grandfather.  The best thing about being a grandfather is hugging Grandma.  Grandparents and grandchildren get a long well together.  Have you noticed?  Grandparents and their grandchildren get a long well because they have a common enemy – the generation in the middle.   

 Friday night I was holding my little grandson, Ben.  I was thinking not only about how precious he is, but also about the responsibility his dad and mom have.  When I pray for my grandchildren, I always pray for their parents, too. 

The task of parenting is a long road.  Parents always seem to be in such a hurry for their children to move from one stage of development to the next stage.  About the time children learn to crawl, parents wish they could stand up and walk.  A correlation exists there between the time they learn to walk and the time they get a driver’s license.  Parents tire of running a taxi service, of hauling children to all types of events.  They do feel some relief when the children are ready to get a license.  Once they get that license, however, it is absolutely frightening for parents. 

I sometimes think about David going into the valley of Elah to fight the giant, Goliath.  David put on Saul’s armor and rattled around in it for a while.  Realizing that the armor would hinder him, David said, “I do not need this heavy stuff.  I have a sling and some rocks.  That’s all I need.”  As David entered the valley to fight the giant, King Saul was standing on the rim of that hill, watching.  I know exactly how it feels to watch a child go into “the valley” seemingly so ill-equipped to face “the giants.”  I felt the same way as King Saul did when my children drove an automobile out of the driveway on Saturday nights. 

            What shall we teach our children to prepare them for every transition along the way?  I can tell you that we cannot do that job alone.  I am grateful for so many Christian people who have been a part of this process with our children:  every Sunday School teacher, every youth minister, every choir director, every person who led a mission group, every person who taught in Vacation Bible School, every Scout Master.  My goodness what a debt we owe to all of these Christian leaders! 

School teachers and principals also played such a vital role in the development of our children.  Because Clare was a high school history teacher at one time, we knew that we had to be allies with our children’s teachers.  We did our best to create parent-teacher alliances.  It is in that combination that children receive the most from their education.  If parents and teachers are not allies, children will quickly play the game known as Divide and Conquer.  Children do not need to divide the adults.  They should know that their teachers are allied with their parents.  That does not mean that the teachers and the parents will always agree, but it does mean that the adults will combine their energy for the wellbeing of those children. 

            Have you ever been involved in science projects with your children?  I learned an important lesson one time when Betsy had a project.  About two weeks before it was due, I was sitting in the La-Z-Boy rocker, kicked back. 

Betsy walked through the den and said, “Hey, Dad.  What are we doing for our science project this year?”  Notice the plural pronouns in her question.  “What are we doing for our science project?” 

I realized I needed to be a little less hands-on that year.  I could help her think of ideas, but she really had to execute the research.  That is just one example of how parents are involved in the transitions in life.  Parents must help their children become more and more responsible as they grow older. 

            What should we teach our children?  The way my children answered that question at the supper table offers a place to begin.  First, our children need to know that they are constantly loved.  No matter what they do, no matter what they make on their report card, no matter what kind of spat or scrape they get into, it is vital they realize that we will always love them, that we will give them unconditional love. 

They also need to be taught to obey.  I would couple the word obey with another word, trust.  We sing the words of the hymn that say, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.”  Children must be taught to trust and to obey.  The two go hand-in-hand. 

            Years ago, my grandfather was behind the counter at the lumberyard when a man came in and started giving him an order for lumber.  The man had brought his young son with him.  As the man began talking, the little boy interrupted, “Daddy, buy me a Coke.  Daddy, Daddy, buy me a Coca-Cola.  Daddy, please buy me a drink.”

            The boy continued interrupting until finally, the man reprimanded, “I want you to hush.  Do not bother me.  I am talking to Mr. Neely.”

            “Daddy, Daddy, buy me a Coke.  Daddy, please buy me a Coke.”

            “I told you to hush.  If you don’t hush, I am going to give you a whipping.”

            “Daddy, Daddy, please buy me a Coke.  Buy me a Coke.”

            The man turned in exasperation to my grandfather and said, “I told him if he would get in the car and ride over here with me, I would buy him a Coke.  Now, he won’t leave me alone.”

            My grandfather reached into the cash drawer and took out a dime.  That lets you know how long ago this scene occurred.  He laid it on the counter and then reached for a yardstick, printed with the words Neely Lumber Company.  He laid the yardstick next to the dime and told the man, “The dime is for the Coke, and the yardstick is for the whipping.  If you make a child a promise, you keep it.” 

            Long before the organization named Promise Keepers, people were promise keepers.  Be careful about what you promise.  If you make a promise, you must keep it.  Doing so will help children learn to trust and to obey.

            “Teach them to read,” was Scott’s response.  Children become interested in reading by seeing their parents reading.  They learn that if parents spend time looking at a book, something in books must be worth knowing.  They develop a curiosity about reading.  If they learn to read, they can do well in school.  If they learn to like reading, they can do very well in school.  School is quite hard otherwise.  By the time they get to high school, all classes require reading, even math and science. 

Of all the reading we can encourage our children to do, nothing is more important than teaching them to read the Bible.  You heard the Scripture that Emma Kate read: “Thy Word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee” (Psalm 119:11).  Memorizing Scripture is committing the words of God to our heart.  Both of my grandmothers bribed me to memorize Scripture.  Learning the Ten Commandments or Psalm 23 earned a dollar each.  Memorizing Matthew 5-7, the entire Sermon on the Mount, earned $10.  I could not quote that passage now if my life depended on it, but I know what is in it.  How do children learn to treasure the Scripture?  They see Mom and Dad, sitting down with a Bible and reading it on a daily basis.  They learn best by example.

            Teach them to think, not to be like lemmings rushing to the sea, following the crowd without considering the consequences.  Teach them to think for themselves, to think outside the box, to think in ways that are creative and productive. 

            “You had better send someone else, Dad,” the statement from my oldest, has a lot of truth.  There are no experts.  We are all in this together.  We all have a lot to teach, a lot to teach each other.  We all certainly have a lot to learn, a lot to learn from each other. 

I can remember the day Clare was wearing a beautiful dress, and one of our children vetoed her choice by asking, “Are you going to wear that!?”  That comment hurt her feelings. 

I also remember the day I took an overdue library book to Carver Junior High School to give to our son so that he would not be charged a late fee.  I changed my lunch hour and drove to Carver at the end of the day.  I checked in at the office, just as I was supposed to do, and spoke with the principal, Dr. Tyrone Gilmore. 

When the last bell of the day rang, I walked down the hall, filled with junior high students.  I thought surely I would be noticeable.  I did not look like a junior high student then, and I do not now.  I saw my son coming down some steps, and I was almost sure he saw me.  We were walking toward each other, but we never established eye contact.  I realized about ten paces from him that I was not to say a word.

As we passed each other in the hallway, he mumbled out of the corner of his mouth, “I’ll meet you in the parking lot.”  I just kept walking, went out the nearest door to the parking lot, and sat in the car. 

In a few minutes, he came bounding out to the car, plopped down in the front seat beside me, and said, “Hi, Dad!  How are you?”

I said, “Well, I’m thoroughly confused.  What’s going on?”

He scolded, “Dad, don’t ever come in my school!”   

With those words, he had fired me as his parent that day.

Years later, I drove to Furman with a care package, containing a lemon pound cake, double-fudge chocolate brownies and all kinds of candy for our son at the end of the first semester of his freshman year.  I went to his dorm room, but he was not there.  His roommate and some other guys suggested, “Dr. Neely, you can just leave that package here if you would like.” 

There was no way I was going to leave all that food with those boys.  I was a college freshman myself once.  I told them, “No thanks.  I’ll find him.  Where is he?”

“In the library.”

When I walked into the library, I heard, “Hi, Dad!  How are you?  Let me introduce you to some of my friends.”

Our son was quite appreciative of the care package.  I was glad that he had acknowledged me to his friends.  When I told him that I had to head back to Spartanburg, he threw his arms around my neck, hugged me, and remarked in front of his friends there, “I love you, Dad.”  I floated out of the Furman library.  I had been rehired. 

It happens to all of us.  Parents, please understand that your children will fire you along the way.  The time comes when they rehire us.  We have to stick it out until then.  They cannot take us down to the used parent lot and trade us in for another model. 

I was fired five times, but I have also been rehired five times.  The feeling of embarrassment and the feeling that we have to get their approval militate against good parents.  Put those two feelings aside.  Embarrassing them is part of our job description.  You cannot get their approval and be a good parent.  They will not always like you because of your decisions to do what is right.  It is fine.

What shall we teach our children?  How should we teach our children?  We have to believe the importance of teaching by example.  Look at the line, “These commandments that I give today are to be written upon your hearts.”  We must live as if we love God with heart and soul and mind and strength.  That line is followed by the imperative to teach these things “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”  That passage means that you need to be with your children at bedtime and at breakfast.  You must have some time with them when you are not on the move, when the radio is not playing.  You must have some time with them when the family is not divided, not living separate lives watching little screens.  The family must sit down together and talk about the love of God.  If we teach them to love God, our homes become, as Paul says in several of his letters, “the church in your house” (Romans 16:5; I Corinthians 16:19).  Do you want your children to know the books of the Bible?  Teach them.  Do you want them to memorize Scripture?  Teach them.  Do not delegate those tasks to the Sunday School teacher.  You are the number one teacher for your children.

What shall we teach our children?  Deuteronomy tells us what is important to teach:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.”  Jesus adds in Mark 12:30 the requirement to love God “with all your mind.”  That is the curriculum.  Look at the way Jesus grew:  in wisdom – that is the mind; in stature – that is the physical strength; in favor with God – that is the soul, the spiritual side; in favor with other people – that is the heart, the emotional side, the relationship side.    The four ways in which our children grow are the heart, soul, mind, and strength.  We need to teach them to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.  God has demonstrated His love to us in Jesus Christ.  The supreme way in which we can show our love of God is to lead our children to accept Christ as their Savior.  We want them to have a personal relationship with God as their Father in heaven.  We can cultivate their relationship with God by modeling that love and by showing them that we have a personal relationship with God as Father in heaven. 

Have you ever seen a U-Haul truck being pulled behind a hearse?  I think not.  The old adage really is true:  You cannot take it with you.  Do you know what you can take to heaven with you?  You can take your family, your children.  The Christian home is the single greatest arena for evangelism.  More people are led to Christ in the context of the Christian home than anywhere else. 

Above everything else, our responsibility is to teach our children this one commandment, which Jesus called the Greatest Commandment:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 


Kirk H. Neely

© February 2009

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