They are everywhere, aren’t they? The little people. Running, wetting, pulling, whining, spitting, laughing, squatting, sucking, frowning, screaming, grinning, squirming, sleeping, although not enough. An altogether terrifying horde at times. Seven hundred plus swarm the halls and climb the walls — or if they don’t, their teachers do, every Sunday morning, beginning every autumn at our church.
How do we feel about them? I sense a curious ambivalence about children in the larger culture. We are obviously in favor of children, go to great expense and medical lengths to have them, indulge them, parade them, enjoy them. Children are fun, they love us and make us feel good. But children are also a burden, a constraint upon our desire to live our own lives. They limit us, tie us down 24/7, devour our time and energy. An economic asset one hundred years ago. Today a huge liability.
And so Europe is dying. Not one country welcoming enough children to sustain the population, provide workers for the national pension systems. Italy the worst with only 1.1 child per family. So increasing numbers of culturally alien foreign workers are tolerated.
And the New York Times observes that over half of all the inhabitants of Manhattan are single people living alone. Quotes a young man who says, “It’s great freedom. It means the norm is no longer getting married and having kids.”
So it appears that many have lost the sense of how our lives and future as a people are bound up with the health and future of all these kids running around here, whether they happen to wear our name or not. Remarkable how the old faith cares about, calls us to celebrate the importance of children to the life of the entire community. And so we do that today even as we celebrate fourteen years of leadership in ministry to our children by Susie Kiphart.
But sadly we do it against the backdrop of New Orleans and the hurricane that has interrupted and even brought death to thousands of innocent children, not to mention all the grown. And we do it on the day when we remember 9/11 and that obscene violation of human life.
So what can our celebration possibly mean in the face of these — tragedies of nature, tragedies of human evil. In a way our responsibility as a Christian community, parents, grandparents, friends all, is to prepare our children for life in such a world, a world of pain and trouble, difficulty and reversal. As a faith community we can do very little to lift the suffering, reverse the hardship the people of the southern states are facing. As a faith community we are uniquely situated to nurture our children so they may deal with the inevitable challenges of life with courage and hope when it is their turn. Dr. Peck in that popular volume of some years ago, The Road Less Traveled, begins with this sentence. “Life is hard, but if you learn to accept that, then it is not so hard.”
The picture is still vivid in my mind of an assembly during a great church day rally in Berlin in the summer of 1961. An assembly where 100,000 Christians gathered to worship and study, one third of them from the communist east. Bishop Lilje, a member of the illegal church that had opposed Hitler and who had been a prisoner of the SS, spoke of how his faith in God had enabled him to endure the isolation and torture. During the Q and A, a rather brash young man stood and asked the bishop what all this had to do with the current scene in Germany where all this was behind them.
The Bishop quietly replied, “It has to do with getting ready.” Two weeks later the Berlin wall went up and those from the east found themselves confined in a virtual prison for 29 years, their faith challenged at every turn.
Our responsibility toward our children then is to get them ready for effective, healthy and faithful life in a very unpredictable and often cruel world. First of all, they need to know that they count in a world where children are often marginalized, have little status and importance, and neither nature nor society seems interested in them. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish community valued children, saw them as a gift from God. But they had no status in the community, were considered more property than real persons. When the boy reached the age of bar mitzvah, he could participate in worship. Women and girls never could.
In the pagan world children had even less honor. Abortion and infanticide were widespread. Against all this devaluation and over the objection of his own disciples, Jesus welcomes the women and their children, insisting that they are fully members of the new community. They indeed count. Children require an atmosphere in which they know themselves valued unconditionally, not for appearance or performance, but quite simply because they are also children of God.
But how do we let them know that they count? By giving them time. Time is the most affirming gift you can give to a child. When asked what they might change about their lives if they could, the most common response of Americans surveyed is that they wished they could spend more time with their families. Some of them may feel like the father who worked out of town a lot and began to lose touch with his family. On one of his visits home he offered to spend the evening with the kids while his wife went out. He sent them to bed and then settled down to read. Every few minutes one child bounced down the stairs and each time the father ordered him back up. At 9:30 the next door neighbor appeared at the door, asking anxiously whether her son was there. The Dad said, “No.” But over the bannister popped a little head and a timid voice squeaked, “I’m here, Mom, but he won’t let me go home.”
It is not just our good intentions that matter. It is our time. Children feel important, feel affirmed as we give them our time. Four older men were honored down in Austin, Texas for the many years they had given to Scout Troop 11, years which had seen countless merit badges earned, numerous camping trips, and 24 members become Eagle Scouts. But one theme echoed through all the words of gratitude to the four by former scouts. One summarized their sentiment. “It wasn’t that they taught us how to tie a square knot. It wasn’t that they showed us where to pitch a tent. It wasn’t that they encouraged us to earn another badge. Those things were important-but they were not all-important. What was most important to us was that these four men gave us their time. Of course they were busy, overextended in their work, loaded with family responsibilities, juggling tight schedules. Still, they gave us their time. Looking back from the perspective of 25 years, I see what that meant. They gave themselves to us. And that has made so much difference in our lives— and the differences have all been for the better.”
Our children need to know that they count quite apart from performance, quite apart from what they can or cannot do for us. And they need help in the formation of character, a word we don’t hear much any more. Have we not learned something these past days about how thin the veneer of civilization really is? Character is not something that just happens. Dr. Alberta Siegel, professor of psychology at Stanford University, puts it this way, “When it comes to rearing children, every society is only 20 years from barbarism. Twenty years is all we have to accomplish the task of civilizing the infants who are born into our midst each year. These savages know nothing of our language, our culture, our religion, our values, our customs or our interpersonal relations. The infant is totally ignorant about totalitarianisms, democracy, civil liberties, the rights of the minority, respect, decency, honesty, customs, conventions and manners. The barbarian must be tamed if civilization is to survive.”
But it is clearly a job that is not getting done. Even the social engineers are beginning to get scared. “We have all kinds of evidence there’s a hole in the moral ozone,” says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics. The institute recently released survey results indicating that two out of five high-school-age boys and one of four girls have stolen from stores. Nearly two-thirds of all high-school-age students and one-third of college students cheat. More than one third of males and one-fifth of females will lie to get a job. I need not recite for you the growing incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy, disrespect for law, increase in vandalism that marks the landscape out there, and not just in some distant south-side.
But the reality is this: we know what it takes to civilize the savage, to raise children who are responsible and accountable. It takes parents who early on set clear-cut limits on behavior consistently and without equivocation or even explanation. The conscience, or as Freud dressed it up, the super-ego, is formed early on as little children internalize a set of do’s and don’ts which become habits of mind and heart that they then violate only at great interior pain. Only as early in years we develop this governor within are we prepared to live a civil and responsible life. And where this does not happen, or happens weakly or confusedly, we sow the seeds of social chaos and destruction.
The studies are quite clear. Children who, with their parents, participate actively in a community of faith, show a radically lower incidence of anti-social behavior even on through high school and college years. One criminal court judge comments on his long years behind the bench that he had rarely encountered an example of delinquent behavior on the part of a young person who was active in church school.
They need to know that they count. They need our help and example in developing strong character. They need to learn with us the meaning of compassion. We have seen not only anti-social behavior lately but we have seen an incredible outpouring of compassion, have we not? But there is no evidence that this compassion happens because people are born that way. In many ways it is uniquely American and one has to suspect that it is because of the nurture of parents of faith in literally thousands of religious communities, where compassion is practiced. If there is one thing all religious groups seem to agree on, it is that people of faith ought to care for the sick, the aged, the poor, the disadvantaged. But it must be practiced to become real. There are many ways in which you can share with your children in caring for those in need. Our church is joining with Church World Service in collecting School Kits and Clean-up Buckets. Children learn to care in the company of family and church people who act out care for others without thought of reward.
The children need a sense that they count, help in character formation and in learning compassion. And finally they need help in sustaining their confidence in God. Not in nature. They need to know that God does not do hurricanes. Nor ultimately in human beings. And here our relationship with the young, with our children is not just a one way street. If they need from us, we also need from them. Jesus is utterly clear that God can make himself available more often through infants than Ph.D.s, through children than through captains of government and industry, because children are humble. Jesus means the child’s sense that they are not expert and all knowing, autonomous and self-sufficient, proud and powerful, but vulnerable, without all the answers, and ultimately dependent.
Not much of that sense out there these days. More posturing, finger pointing, assertion of authority and status and expertise. Little of the humility that Jesus insists the children call us to share. Beneath all the very legitimate concerns out there for caring for the living and burying the dead, for educating and organizing better for the future, getting it right and on time, I smell an underlying assumption that our faith warns us against. The assumption that if we are clever enough, employ sufficient power and know-how, leadership and organization, if only we do it right we may really secure ourselves against all the varied
threats of natural and human evil. We can take care of ourselves without reference to and dependence upon God for the wisdom and strength and courage to deal with whatever comes. True humility that we may both share with, and learn from, the child is the recognition that we are not totally in control and must therefore learn to trust our lives to a loving God who is greater than the terrors and storms of life, and with us whatever comes, enabling us to change what can be and enduring what cannot be.
What if your love and care for even one child, nurturing faith in him and so also in you, might not be over time the most important gift of your life to the Kingdom? One woman who had taught Sunday School for many years received a letter from a young man in the hospital. “You probably don’t remember me,” he wrote, “but I visited your Sunday School class when I was staying with my grandparents during the summer of 1978. You were so very kind to me. Because of you, I became a Christian, and my faith has been very important to me, and is especially now that I have been diagnosed with cancer. So I just wanted to tell you ‘thanks.’ You gave me the gifts I need to deal with all this.” She didn’t remember the young man, but searched through her 1978 diary and came across this notation: “We had a visitor in class today. He was a handful! Couldn’t sit still. I sat beside him and gave him some extra attention. Don’t know whether I did him any good.”
And we never do know. It is a matter of faith in God and the child.