Teaching Children About Keeping Their Faith in the Context of Being a Minority Religion in America

North Texas Orthodox Missions Conference 2013

On February 22 and 23, 2013, North Texas Orthodox Missions hosted a conference on “How to Talk with Your Children and Grandchildren About God.” The lectures were presented at both St. Barbara Orthodox Church (OCA) and Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (GOA) in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas. Speakers included Fr. Daniel Keller, Fr. Nick Hadzellis, Fr. Justin Frederick, Fr. Vasile Tudora, Dn. Athanasios Sharpley, and Fr. Justin Frederick.

May 2013

Teaching Children About Keeping Their Faith in the Context of Being a Minority Religion in America

Dn. Athanasios Sharpley

May 1, 2013 Length: 26:40





Dn. Athanasios Clint Sharpley received his Master of Divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1975. He also studied on the graduate level in philosophy at Tulane University, and in business at the University of Texas at Dallas. He served as senior vice president, investments, at a major Wall Street firm; as a daily radio personality; and as an adjunct professor of business at a local university. All of this ended in 2000, when he was disabled by multiple sclerosis. Life was then limited to volunteer activities at church, and in the community as health permitted.

He became Orthodox in 2006, and after completing the St. Stephen’s course, was ordained to the diaconate in 2011. Today he volunteers as health permits at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Dallas, Texas.

Please be seated. [laughter] I was so interested in what Fr. Vasile says. It reminded me of when I taught college, and I explained to the students the difference between science and liberal arts, that those in the sciences are looking for intelligent life on other plants, and those of us in the liberal arts are looking for intelligent life on this planet, and we both have our work cut out for us.

If you’ve been to all of the sessions here, last night and this morning, you’re probably tired on both ends, so rather than have a 12- to 15-page document to read to you, which is actually my preference as far as speaking, because I can get through a lot of material—when I go through the entire history of the Church, which I call “From Golgotha to Galveston,” I need to have that kind of thing written out so I can get through it—but I figure you’ve been sitting long enough and listening long enough, you’re probably a little worn out, mentally and physically, so these are my notes for today.

I wrote the point on the back, and here’s the point. Your children need to know who we are so that they will know who they are. Your children need to know who we are, that is to say, the Church, so they will know who they are.

How do we do that? Well, we’ve been leading up to this all along. I’m probably not the best one to address being a minority culture, because I’ve only been in this minority culture for about seven years. I had a hard time understanding it, just the oddity of having Easter at a different time [from] everyone else. So I asked my wife, who is cradle Orthodox, “Doesn’t that just seem weird to you to have Easter at a different time [from] everybody else?” and she said, “No, we really liked it, because we always got the eggs on sale.” So I think y’all are more used to being a minority in the culture than I am, because I came from the PCA, the Presbyterian Church in America, which was 250,000 Southern white people. They look like me, they thought like me, they acted like me, they dress like me. They were like me.

And then I joined this church, which is 250 million people. They don’t look like me, they don’t act like me… It was a big cultural adjustment for me to move from the majority culture into the minority culture, but let me tell you: life was not a bed of roses in the majority culture, because there’s a lot of things going on out here in the culture that as conservative Protestants we weren’t real thrilled about, either. But what we didn’t have was the rich tradition of the holy Church to tell us how to cope with that. We weren’t learning from the Fathers who spent 300 years—the first 300 years of our existence—being a persecuted minority and told us how to do it.

I’m amazed constantly at the richness of the Orthodox experience. You heard the speakers. Last night we had Fr. Dan talk about what’s going on in public schools, and he mentioned 50 years of a failed experiment by Protestants, but he didn’t go into what that failed experiment was. By the way, it’s mentioned in this book written by David Kinnaman, the president of the Barna Group; it’s called, You Lost Me, and it’s about what happened to our young people, and it’s about how inbred their whole view of the world is that they think we lost them. You Lost Me is the title of the book. Barna is a pollster. He’s a social scientist—Kinnaman, but I refer to him as “Barna,” because it’s the Barna Group; it’s easier to talk about that way. He’s a child of a Protestant preacher. He is a social scientist and a pollster, and he comes up with a lot of interesting statistics, but his solutions are from the experience of having been Protestant.

Last night Fr. Dan said they had this 50-year failed experiment they finally realized is a failure. What it was was “children’s church.” Now this is going to be hard for you Orthodox to understand, but they actually took all the children off from this watered-down service they already had, and took them to another room where the print got a lot bigger and the ideas got a lot smaller, and they watered it down to where it was Tinker-Toy theology. And you know what happened when those kids grew up? They threw away the Tinker-Toys! That’s what happens when you grow up, and what you’ve done is, by definition, childish, is you put away childish things. And 50 years later, they’ve said, “You know what? We messed up. We should have had our kids in church, experiencing church.”

Fr. Nick talked about them turning away from religion. Statistics show that by the time they get to college, large numbers of kids are turning away from the church, but I think that’s skewed by that Protestant experience. One thing that the Barna Group points out is that a lot of the kids who turn away from the faith in college already had some issues going on in high school. They already had some issues going on while they were in the home. I think we need to be careful not to say, “Oh, it’s that nasty college over there that’s doing that to our kids,” but what they’re doing is they’re playing on the doubts and fears that the children already had coming out of high school. What we can address is: what about the things that we do still have some say over?

I’m convinced that one of the things that they need to find out is: they need to know who we are, because they cannot depend on this culture to tell them who we are. This culture doesn’t have a clue. Try wearing one of these skirts, and if you walk around in one of these skirts, you get to do a whole lot more field-testing than if you’re not wearing one. Back when I was wearing a suit, I didn’t get asked nearly the questions I do now. A guy asked me the other day, “So, do y’all celebrate Christmas?” He was my waiter. I said, “Well, yeah. We celebrated the first one.” He came back by later to get me some coffee, and I said, “I misspoke. We weren’t at the first Christmas. We were at the thirty-third Christmas, because we started on the day of Pentecost in 33 A.D.” At that point, he’s got time. So I told him what I told everybody, and it’s in this timeline of Church history, and I think we need to go over this in detail with our kids and talk about who we are, but you also need to have it on an elevator version, that is, if you get on at the first floor and you get off at the sixth floor, can you tell who we are? When somebody says, “So, do y’all believe in the Bible?” I mean, I get these questions. Here’s the basic explanation, the elevator version of this: this whole timeline of 2,000 years of Orthodoxy. I say:

Christianity started in five cities: Antioch, the place where we were first called Christians.

You know why I always mention Antioch first? Because if they’re Protestant and they know something about it and they’re an informed Protestant, they’ve read that in Acts. They know Antioch is the place where we were first called Christians. They may not believe anything else about what I’m about to say, but they believe the first thing. They let us pick the books of the Bible, but they don’t let us tell them what’s in it. So I say:

Antioch, the place where we were first called Christians; Alexandria; Jerusalem, of course; Rome; and New Rome, or Constantinople.

And if the elevator door opens, out they go. If I’ve got a couple more floors, I say:

And in 1054, Rome left us, but the other four cities continued to be what they have always been since they were founded at Pentecost in 33 A.D., the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, the Orthodox faith.

Then a guy came up the other day and said, “So do y’all believe the Bible?” So I said, “Well, we ought to. We wrote it.” I said, “Let me tell you: Christianity started in five cities: Antioch, the place where we were first called Christians…”

You know what that gives them? You know what Fr. Nick said last night, that these kids are looking for? They’re looking for authenticity. And when you go back to the very first day, these people don’t know—I know; I was out there. I spent 50 years trying to be like the New Testament Church, and nobody told me it was down the street.

In fact, one time I asked one of my Presbyterian brethren, “What about this Greek Orthodox thing?” He said, “Oh, they believe something strange about the Trinity.” I said, “Well, I wouldn’t want that.” It turned out the strange thing they believe about the Trinity is the Nicene Creed.

So there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and the fact is that people just don’t know that the New Testament Church that they’ve always tried to be like is right down the street, so that’s why I say: “Christianity started in five cities…”

I was very interested to hear what Fr. Vasile said, too, in that the real confrontation is between scientists with shallow theology that fight theologians with shady science. I was tremendously interested in the solution that Barna comes up with. They said, “You know what we need? We need humility.” Every legitimate scientist is humbled by what they don’t know. Scientism is when these guys quit practicing humility as a scientist.

But, see, the problem was we never learned humility in the Protestant church. We didn’t learn it anywhere. This metroplex is four million Protestants, and with the influx of Hispanics, a million Catholics, and about a million other people that go everywhere from atheist to Buddhist to everything in the world. There’s ten thousand of us, and I told the young people one day in the high school class; I said, “You’re going to be confronted about what you believe, because there’s just so few of us. You don’t live the way this culture lives. At least you shouldn’t, because their influences are completely different.”

There was never any way in my whole Protestant life that I was ever taught humility. I’ve got to tell you, that’s something I’m focusing on this year more than anything else: living the humble life, because we had no other influence to tell us that. We tried to be like the New Testament Church, and we were real proud of the fact that we were closer to it than anybody else, and we wanted an argument to prove it.

Then I got into the real New Testament Church, and I’m humbled that the God who humbled himself to become man and put his hands on people who put their hands on people who put their hands on people—that grace came to me. And that’s what our kids need to know. They need to know who we are, because that’s the key to [their] knowing who they are. And there’s all these little things that you can do because the Church is so rich.

These guys are in a panic. They’re trying to replace stuff that their ancestors turned their backs on 500 years ago, and then they came to America and they turned their backs on stuff that Zwingli and Calvin and Luther believed. And then those people that were such wild heretics that they couldn’t stay in the Northeast got driven to Tennessee, and the people that couldn’t live in Tennessee got driven to Texas. What kind of culture do you think we’re in? It’s not an Orthodox culture, I can tell you that. It’s not a humble culture, but we’ve got the teaching tools.

We just get little opportunities. With the grandkids out of town, we hardly get to see them, but you know what? When my little granddaughter Kiki was five, she was crossing herself this way. “What are you doing?” Well, she’s left-handed. It was a teaching moment. It gave me the ability say, “We use the right hand—nothing wrong with being left-handed—but we use the right hand because Jesus laid his right hand on the apostles, and they laid their right hands on the bishops, and they laid their right hand on the bishops today, and they laid their right hand on us to the point that we even wear our wedding rings on the right hand, because this is the hand of blessing.” It was just a great little teaching moment. As she got older, Mary bought her some books. We got books in the bookstore that will explain the things of the Church, and there’s Light and Life Publishing…

I asked the college kids, “Is there any experience you had from your parents that really meant something to you later on in your college experience?” And one of them said, “My dad and I, on the way to school, would say our morning prayers, and occasionally we’d sing a hymn of the Church.” He said, “I find myself today, as I am driving to the campus, saying my morning prayers and occasionally singing a hymn.” This is one of the simple ways in which we let them know who we are so that later on they’ll still know who they are.

But I mentioned these guys are going crazy. They’ve turned their back on all these things. One of the things they’ve brought up was: “You know what we need to have? We need to have mentoring.” I said, “You know, it probably would have been good, 500 years ago, if you hadn’t turned your back on godparents,” because the holy Church, in its wisdom, knew you needed mentors. We didn’t need Barna to run a poll to say, “You need mentors.” The holy Fathers knew you need a mentor.

The other night in the OCF, one of the young women there said the excitement that’s in her life right now is she’s going to actually get to be a godparent and actually get to help raise one of these little babies in the faith, to raise them up in the knowledge and understanding of God, to grow them in the faith. And she’s excited about it.

I think you mainly need to know who we are, because you can spend your life out there studying cults and doing all those kind of things. I was doing that when I became Orthodox. I’d walked through sewers you don’t want to walk through. I’d studied a lot of that kind of stuff. Fr. Gregory said, “Wait a minute.” He said, “Let me tell you how the Canadians teach their treasury agents to spot phoney currency. They don’t study phoney currency. They study the Canadian dollar to where they know absolutely everything about it, and when something doesn’t jibe with it, they don’t have to know how it was made wrong. They just know it’s wrong.”

That’s had a big influence on me as I’ve grown in Orthodoxy. To make sure that I know who we are so that I know who I am. But I do think it helps to know a little about the culture, so that you can tell your kids with a cultural example. I don’t know, it might be music, it might be sports, whatever works with your kids. With my kids, it was TV, and the big TV show back when they were kids was Seinfeld. I said, “Look at these people. They think lying to each other is the highest form of humor, and betrayal is the thing you do in your closest relationships.” I said, “The Christian way is a different way. We love each other. We don’t lie to each other. These people, they love lying to [whomever] new comes by, but if they don’t have somebody new [come] by, they lie to each other. They’ll betray each other. That’s not the Christian life. The Christian life: we love each other and we’re honest with each other and we care about each other.” It gave me a teaching moment.

You know [whom] I’d talk to them about today? And I asked the kids in the OCF, and they all knew them, and that’s the people from Big Bang Theory. I’d talk about Penny. Penny is this nice, sweet, cute little girl who’s believed everything that culture is selling, and she has nothing to show for it. She doesn’t even know who she is. She thinks she’s okay at relationships, and all she has is just one broken relationship after another. She doesn’t even know what she does for a living. She thinks she’s an actress. She’s a waitress! Nothing wrong with being a waitress, but she doesn’t know that’s what she is. She thinks she’s something else. Not only does she not know what the world is, she doesn’t know who she is, and the holy Church can give you understanding of who you are.

One of the great advantages we’ve got is we’ve got the saints, and that’s one of the great ways to teach your kids. “You’re named after a saint. Let’s talk about the saint that you’re named after.” I’m named after St. Athanasios who stood for the truth. Regardless of the consequences, he continued to stand for the truth. My sweet wife is named after the ever-virgin Mary, the only woman in human history who ever got to be the mother of God, and yet was this humble fifteen-year-old girl who lived a humble life, calling herself nothing more than the handmaiden of God. So I can go to that granddaughter, Kiki, Angeliki, and talk to her, on her nameday especially, about how she’s named for the angels: the angels who get to enjoy being the presence of God and worshiping him forever, and so, one day, will she.

It’s a great contrast between what this culture can produce and what the world can produce, because Penny is just part of that growing mob of people that are just wanderers. They are wandering through this nomadic life of the desert of nihilism that they just… In a word, they are lost. They don’t know even who they are.

You have to grieve for the Pennys of this world who bought everything this culture is telling them and still don’t have any answers, or they can come to this holy Church like little Kiki, and this Christmas she wrote us a card. I’ve just got a copy because I didn’t want to take the original out of the house. This is the envelope, all painted up. It says, “To Yiayia and Papou Clint, from Kiki.” Then the card says, “Merry Christmas. Thank you for teaching me about God and loving me and cuddling me and giving me hugs and loving me.” “Loving me” got in there twice.

We’re not going to get any help from the culture. They’re going to give wrong answers to our kids every time they can, but by the grace of God, we may come to the point in our lives where our children say, “Thank you for teaching me about God.” In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen!

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