When Lindon and I were first married we, and almost all the young couples in our age bracket whom we knew in the seminary, were asking ourselves questions about children, “Should we bring children into this awful world?” For a while we wavered, and I think we would eventually have decided, “Yes,” on our own. A letter from her father, Dr. Franklin Fowler, certainly tipped the scales, though. The hand written letter, in a physician’s script no less, said something to this effect: “Think about all the children being born today to parents who will not raise their children to embrace God’s love and act on it. If your generation gives up on bringing children into the world and showing them God’s love along with the need to act on that love to change the world, what hope for any of us is there?”
Certainly, a world with enough people who embrace God’s love and who act on God’s love to make the world a better place is just about the only real hope there is for the world. Children who grow up in the midst of problems and dangers, never being shown or taught that there’s any other way to live, aren’t going to create an improved or improving world. There are a few natural born humanitarians, but they have always seemed scarce so the world of religion focussing on divine love for the whole of humanity is our greatest hope indeed.
Two thoughts may be occupying your critical minds, competing for attention with all you have left to do to be ready for Christmas. One, is that a selfish reason to bring children into the world? Isn’t the best reason to bring children into the world to let them taste of life and live it to the fullest as they alone decide? Well, if untaught children had a fighting chance to make something good of life for themselves, not even taking others into consideration, that might be worth noting. A point to take note of, too, is that children who as adults make the world a better place are making it better not just for others, but at least to some degree also for themselves although we have to acknowledge that many of those who make the world better for others greatly sacrifice and end up getting to enjoy very little of the change they invest themselves to bring about.
Moses, for example, was a child of promise. Only through an amazing turn of events did he live through infancy, and only through another set of amazing circumstances was he adopted as the son of the Pharaoh’s compassionate daughter, raised in the palace, and taught Egyptian ways while keeping his family’s secret that he was really a Hebrew, not an Egyptian, and managing to learn the ways of his own people as well. This gave him the unique position of being able to lead his people, the Hebrews, out of Egyptian slavery and to their freedom in another land.
He led the children of Israel through the fabled forty year sojourn in the wilderness to get them to their place of freedom. A forty year gig--that requires sacrifice, even if you’re enjoying what you’re doing. And, in Moses’ case, he certainly didn’t enjoy much of what he had to do to accomplish what he was certain God had called and kept calling him to do. Surely, there were many nights when he went to sleep on the desert sand after having led his whiney, complaining, self-absorbed sister- and brother-Hebrews, when he thought to himself, “You know, if I’d just stayed away from that damn burning bush, this never would have happened, but no, no no, you always have to get your nose into anything that looks odd or unusual. As long as I stayed in the palace, I had it made, and if I were there now, I’d be sleeping on a Comfort Plus Bed, hand made for me, with Egyptian cotton sheets woven with a 900 thread count. I’d be surrounded by servants, and I’d be served the finest foods available. I wouldn’t wake up every morning wondering if enough manna had fallen overnight to feed us. I should be grateful that the manna is filled with nutrition, but it tastes like unleavened bread dough.”
Sometimes, Moses got just as angry about their plight as did his charges, and while they complained to and criticized him, he complained to and criticized God. The God of the book of Exodus got fed up with Moses’ disrespect, and when the survivors finally reached their destination after those long, long forty years, everybody who finished the journey got to enter the promised land except, of all people, Moses. God told him he had shown too much disrespect to God Godself to get to enter what he, Moses, had given his life to experience. Yet, faults and all, had it not been for Moses the Hebrews might very well still have been the slaves of the Egyptians. Looks to me like he’d have been given something of a break for that. His consolation prize, if you know that part of the story of the Exodus, was to get to see God’s rear end. The deal was no person could see the face of God and live; Moses begged for the chance to see God since he would not be allowed to live in the land of freedom to which he had led his countrypersons. God said, “You know the rules. If you see my face, you’ll drop dead. But I’m going to let you stand over there in the cleft of the rock, and when I pass by you’ll get to see me--not my face, but my backside. Not great, but better than nothing.” I’m sure Moses’ understanding of God was forever changed after that image, which I’m certain he was never able to get out of his mind.
Dr. King was able to enjoy a taste, but just a taste, of the freedom for which he fought for oppressed persons of color in this country. Without his understanding of divine love for the whole of humanity--regardless of the color of anyone’s skin--who knows when persons of color in this country would have had freedoms equal to the freedoms of caucasians. Without Dr. King there would not have been a Thurgood Marshall on the US Supreme Court. There would not have been a Barbara Jordan in the US House of representatives. There would have been no Hiram Revels in the US Senate. There would have been no black kids and white kids in the same schools and certainly no black teachers teaching white children. Dr. James McCune Smith and Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler wouldn’t have been allowed to graduate medical school and allowed to practice medicine alongside white doctors. Jackie Robinson would never have been signed to a baseball team willing to integrate. Marian Anderson would never have broken the racial barrier on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Condoleeza Rice would never have been named Secretary of State, and Eric Holder would never have been called Mr. Attorney General. And, there certainly wouldn’t have been a Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Only a handful of these firsts for Blacks was Dr. King able to see before an assassin’s bullet took his life as he stood on the balcony of a mediocre Memphis motel.
He changed the world, though, didn’t he? Had his parents not brought him into the world and taught him about a God who loved all people, even Black people, chances are great that he would not have taken up his life’s work with the intent to make the world a better place.
Most of us who have children and who have tried in our various ways to teach them of the love of God see them as adults at work in their corners of the world making the world a better place. They are the business people who work ethically when there are untold numbers of opportunities to sidestep ethics for personal gain. They are the nurses for whom the welfare of each of their patients is of paramount importance; nothing comes before that. They have taken up the call to protect American freedoms and served with bravery and distinction in the military. They are in schools teaching children, never mentioning God, but still demonstrating God’s love through patience, concern, encouragement, and grace.
There are plenty of reasons to question or debate the contention of many--inside and outside organized religion--that God is love, but my parents taught me this truth by word and deed and backed it up with enrolling my sister, my brother, and me in Sunday School--where, thankfully, most of our teachers kept the focus on divine love and spared us threats of hell. Parents are our most influential teachers; if they don’t have the courage to say, “However you find your way to God is your business and your adventure, but I want you to know that God is love; and I hope, as open minded as you want to be, that you will not pay much attention to anyone who’d tell you that there is anything to God other than love.”
The ancient Hebrews were nomads. They might have been taught the Hebrew language by people in given tribes known to have a knack for teaching children the language, and, undoubtedly, the children learned about the history of their people and the way their people looked at the world through prized stories and thoughtful myths--told by gifted and highly regarded tribal storytellers, as was also true for Indigenous American tribes. Otherwise, teaching was left to parents--and that included religious instruction. Rabbis and synagogues hadn’t come along, and if the children were going to learn family values and the things of God, it was up to the parents to teach them. Such teaching was a sacred obligation, a profound honor--to shape a life with God-awareness.
You heard the very direct instruction to parents read in the thought challenge today. “Hear, O Israel, all of Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Other deities are of no concern to us. You shall love the Lord your God with all your feeling and thinking capabilities, with your inner core, and with all your strength. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Don’t you forget them for any reason, and don’t let your children ever forget them either. In fact, you should recite them to your children all the time; talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead, write them on doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
The summary of what a parent was supposed to teach a child centered in Yahweh as the one and only deity of concern to the Hebrews and the proper response to God--namely love. When monotheism finally evolved to a full-blown and widely held perspective, then the commandment took on new meaning; it reminded the people not only that Yahweh loved all people and that Yahweh was, after all, the only God there was for any people. By the time the book of Deuteronomy was written, where we find these admonitions, parents literally surrounded themselves and their children with reminders of those two essential facts. You can still see orthodox Jews today wearing little boxes around their heads, at least on the sabbath and maybe daily, with tiny bits of scripture in them proclaiming Yahweh as the one God and the proper response to God as love with one’s whole self. These little boxes are phylacteries. I think it was the remarkable Jewish painter who also worked his art into stained glass, Marc Chagall, whose painting of Jesus on the cross--one of several, “The Yellow Crucifixion,” perhaps--portrayed Jesus with one of these phylacteries around his head as hung there dying. I’ve seen hundreds of pictures of Jesus on the cross, but Chagall’s painting of his fellow Jew, Jesus, is the only one that took into full account Jesus’ Jewishness, even on the cross.
If Chagall’s hunch were correct, we can imagine that until the pain took over, much of Jesus’ attention on the cross was focused on those two primary affirmations that his ancestors had said were essential for every Jew to know and for every Jewish family to teach. So, in Jesus’ situation, because of the effective instruction his parents had given him, he was thinking, “I have not lived my life in vain; there is one God who is love, and the way I respond to that divine love is by loving God in return with all I am and have.”
Reminders would be carved into gates and doorposts of homes when the Jews cut back on nomadic activity and settled into towns and villages where they could have their own immovable residences; this was done so that even before entering the house, these critical theological affirmations were in the consciousness of all who entered--children and adults alike. We could scoff at the ancient methods as overkill, but if we put ourselves where they were, perhaps it wasn’t overkill at all. At least what they were teaching was consistent and wasn’t silly cliches and slogans by which some Christians today attempt to teach children and others new to the faith what they supposedly need to know about God.
I wonder if many of us theological progressives today, we liberal seeker types, are ashamed to try to remind our children that we believe God is love or if, because we can’t settle in on what God is to us at the moment, we end up saying nothing at all to our children about God and divine love. After all, we have our own struggles, and we know we are on a journey; we’re learning new things all the time, and our minds change along the way. We don’t want to confuse our children so we say nothing about God at all. Maybe we take them to Sunday School because someone there isn’t afraid to say, “God is love,” in ways children can understand and relate to and remember, and that’s an excellent reason to bring children to church. Still, our Sunday School teachers expect to be building on a foundation laid by parents for openness to God. There are certainly no religious symbols in our Protestant homes--no St. Francises and no Virgin Marys--and rather than encouraging open and free discussion about God, not dogmatic-you’d-better-believe-this-or-hell rules we choose silence. We miss out on talking consistently as a family about where God fits into the picture in events that have an impact on a child’s life. If you made an F on your math test, or you flunked English because you don’t know the difference between an appositive and an apostrophe, God did not will for you to fail your exam. God leaves us to use the brains we have to study and to ask for help when we come across something we don’t know.
I was so touched to get an email from Jason Hale a day or so after his stepfather died saying that he and Molly wanted to know how to talk to their girls about this death. What good parenting! Teachable moments are critical, and modern seekers are much more likely to use those than to try to get their kids to swallow a bunch of rules and call that religion. Keep the rules or burn in hell, not God is love. Even as our adult hearts are heavy, such as when we’ve lost a loved one to death, God is not absent, but present and should be discussed.
One of the terribly difficult lessons to teach children is that God does not cause evil, and there is no devil warming it up on a hellish stove. Most people are good, but there are people who do bad things--individually and especially in groups. And, sweet children, we must keep our eyes open for both. In a world where there has always been plenty of bad, we should keep teaching our children that God is love. Love, sadly, does not eradicate evil, but it does win its share of battles against it--even if they are small and infrequent battles.
When Jesus was a mere eight days old, Mary and Joseph made preparations for baby Jesus’ circumcision and for Mary’s post-delivery purification. Jesus, naturally, didn’t know a thing in the world about what was going on; he did know that after a lot of strange people were oooing and ahing over him with happy smiles on their faces, he felt something really painful. Perhaps his parents, Mary and Joseph, would one day teach him the importance of covenant with God and why circumcision became a part of confirming that covenant. Even if he grew up to think there must surely be many less painful ways to confirm covenant, he at least understood that his parents were trying to demonstrate for him, though he wouldn’t know it until he was well into his growing up years, that identifying oneself with God is one way to show love for the God who is love.
We don’t perform circumcisions around here or even infant baptisms. We do family dedications when a new life becomes a part of the Silverside family. The baby has no clue what I say when I present her or him to the church, but the parents do; and hopefully the day will come when while driving on a family vacation or sitting in a park having a family picnic the parents tell the child the story of the day that Pastor David or Pastor Farmer presented her or him to the whole church because the church wanted to join with mommy and daddy or mommy and mommy in making sure that she or he heard about and saw acted out the fact that God is love.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem and taken for circumcision when he was a tiny 8 days old and then a short time later to the great Jerusalem Temple to be consecrated, we don’t hear another word about Jesus in the materials the church adopted as holy scripture until he was 12 years old, going again to the Temple, but this time for his bar mitzvah. “Bar mitzvah” means “son of the covenant”; it ushers a Jewish boy into adulthood in the eyes of his faith community. Nowadays, in Reform or liberal Judaism, girls too go through the rite; it is called bat mitzvah, “daughter of the covenant.”
To be ready for this momentous day, he had to be able to read from Torah, and he had to have adopted as his own key points of centrist Jewish theology. He had continued to learn from his family and probably also from a rabbi or two here and there. It was his day to shine, and shine he did. He so impressed the professional clergy who worked at the Temple with his answers to their questions and his own questions of them that they were captivated with him. When his family got their large group together ready to leave Jerusalem and head back home to Nazareth, everyone assumed someone else had made sure Jesus was with the group and heading home with the rest of them. Well, into the trip, they found out that wasn’t so. Therefore, the lot of them had to turn around and retrace their steps back to Jerusalem where Jesus was still talking to the professional clergy who were so impressed with his knowledge and his insights that they all had lost track of time causing Jesus to miss the group traveling back to his home.
I can identify with Jesus at this point because when I was about his age, after a Sunday evening church service, I was left behind at church. Mom and Dad had invited a few couples over for a Rook game. Everybody thought somebody else had seen about me and got me home. At home, the adults all started their Rook game, and the kids all headed back to my bedroom and my sister’s bedroom to start the play time. I wasn’t missed in my own home. This could have something to do with the personality disorders with which I struggle yet today.
The pastor was in a hurry to leave so he unlocked the office for me and saw that I had access to a telephone, but he left too; and there I was in a big old empty, dark church all by myself. I was more than a little scared, but I called home; and Dad answered the phone. I said, “Dad, why did you all leave me at church? I didn’t even know you were leaving?”
Dad said, “You better get your butt off this phone and stop the foolishness. I don’t know how you made this phone ring, but if you all are back there thinking your going to bug your parents all night, you’ve got another thought coming.” Then he hung up on me. OK, so I’d played one too many practical jokes, and they were coming back to haunt me.
I called again, and the second he answered the phone, I started speaking as quickly as I could before he scolded me again or hung up on me. “Dad, you all left me at church, and I’m the only one here. I’m scared, and I want to come home now. I’m not kidding. I’m really scared here. It’s spooky being the only one in the church.”
He said, “David Farmer, I’m going to come back into your bedroom and tan your hide. I told you to stop your nonsense so we can play cards.” Well, he went back to my bedroom and found other kids there playing with my things, but no me.
I figured I was going to have to sit there in the church office by myself for two or three hours, until all the company went home at which point they would finally discover that I really wasn’t there. In about 15 minutes I heard a car horn honking like wild outside the church. I peeked out the office window and saw Dad’s car. I ran out; the door locked itself behind me, and there was Dad with the oddest grin on his face. “This is really funny, isn’t it?”
“Uh, NO!” I answered.
“Well, don’t pout and be a baby about it. Take my word for it. It is funny, and you’d better laugh with everyone else when you get home. Someday, if you don’t see it now, you’ll laugh your butt off.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t wait for that great day to come.”
When Jesus’ parents were back at the Temple, which--by the way--was a HUGE complex, they finally found him. They were exasperated. He got a good scolding, but in his defense he said to his parents, “I was here seeing to God’s business. Isn’t that what you always told me was the most important thing in life?” So, parents what are you going to say to one of your offspring who offers that excuse to you?
Cleared throats, apologies from Mary and Joseph, “Well, uh, sure, son, but when you travel with a group, you travel with a group; one person can’t lag behind even if that person thinks she or he has important business.”
“No problem,” said the gifted 12 year old. “Let’s go.” And even though Joseph and Mary were frustrated because of the backtracking, they were too proud for words that their son had not only become a son of the covenant, but also had impressed the scholars who worked at the Temple day in and day out.
The thing is, my dear friends, it worked. The instruction they had carried out in their home had prepared Jesus for a ministry, at that point, none of them--including Jesus--anticipated. The point is, though, that when his mission or ministry became clear to him--or, at least clear enough--he was prepared.
If you’re a parent to children still in the growing up phases, teach, teach your children well that God is love. The world is a crazy, dangerous world; yes it is. Even so God is love. Awful things happen to the finest of people; it’s unfair, and it’s unnecessary. God doesn’t cause those things; God is love.
Once any of us has been bathed in the light of God’s glorious love, we can’t help carrying that love into the world wherever we go. Love is the only thing that can change this world for the better, and I, therefore, challenge parents to dare to point their children to the love of God. You can’t offer them a better gift; nor can you offer the world any greater hope than a child who becomes an adult who knows that God is love and lives accordingly.
I have always enjoyed the words to the Christmas hymn, “Love Came Down at Christmas,” by Christina Rossetti. There are two or three tunes to which it is sung, and only one of those do I really enjoy.
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Giving poetry it’s chance to exercise poetic license, I still think it’s important to recognize that while love may have come down at Christmas, that was not it’s first visit to the abode of humanity, but without a doubt, love must be our token.
Parents, it’s really up to you. There is limited opportunity for your child to learn that God is love unless you tell her or him. Even if you’re not sure of all that means. Even if it’s going to spark some questions you don’t think you’ll be able to answer. It is your responsibility to lay that groundwork in your child’s consciousness and to live out the reality of God’s love in you as you parent in this crazy world. You’ll be planting seeds in your child that you likely will never see full-blown, but you’ll see some of it; and you’ll know you had a hand in pointing people to the one thing that can right the wrongs of human experience.