Yesterday my life changed.
Our oldest son became a parent.
Which means that I became a grandparent.
So far we have only seen pictures.
Our daughter-in-law holding holding her new son not being able to take her eyes off him.
Our son holding his son so small in his large hands.
I will have to learn about what being a grandparent means just as I had to learn about what being a parent meant. Loving, supporting, caring, nurturing in a way that will be both familiar and different. Holding and then giving back. Wanting to step in and do what years ago I learned to do, but needing to step back and allow my son and his wife to learn just as I learned. Loving, fiercely and deeply, but from a distance.
In a few days we will travel to where my grandson lives so we can be properly introduced and say hello in person. But what I think I am looking forward to most is this. In a few years going for a walk with him and learning to look at and to see life and the world through his eyes and through the wonder in his heart.
Yesterday my life changed.
Last weekend we drove to Philadelphia to see our son.
We sat on his front porch in the late afternoon sun.
We walked through the neighborhood in which he lives to pick up dinner which we ate sitting and talking in his backyard. When it came time to go we gave each other a hug and said to each other what we say at the end of all our conversations and time together.
“I love you, Pops.” He said.
“I love you too.” I said.
Then added, “More than you will ever know.”
Later I realized that might not be true.
Someday he might have a child of his own.
Then he will know.
He will know what it feels like to want to protect and need to let go all at the same time.
He will know what it means to desperately want a magic wand to ward off all bad things and what a broken heart feels like when no magic wand appears in your hand.
He will come to know what it feels like to live each day with some combination of love and concern and hope and worry reaching out across time and space to wrap itself around the life of his daughter or son even when they are strong and capable and confident adults themselves.
He will know what it feels like to have his heart go walking around outside his body.
“I love you.” He said.
“I love you, too. More than you will ever know.”
The saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
I believe that it does.
Our children need all of the strong, caring, compassionate adults we can stack around their lives, but if we stop there we have stopped well short of the mark.
Not only does it take a village to raise a child…
It takes a village to care for those who grow old in our midst.
It takes a village to welcome and to include the newcomers.
It takes a village to care for the fragile and vulnerable among us.
It takes a village to help couples find their way through the challenges of life.
It takes a village to dance in our moments of joy.
It takes a village to stand shoulder to shoulder with us in times of need holding us up when we can not stand up on our own.
By and large, I think we have forgotten this and we are paying the price.
Our sense of community…
Our sense of responsibility towards one another…
Our sense of caring for one another…
Has been pushed it aside in favor of the myth of rugged individualism.
That I can do it all on my own.
That I am responsible for myself and for no one else.
That my own strength and willpower and hard work is enough.
But none of that is true.
It just is not.
Thirty two years ago today our oldest son was born.
I thought I was ready to be a parent.
Little did I know…
What it would mean.
What it would ask of me.
What joy and wonder and learning being a parent would be and bring.
There was the miracle of his birth.
There was the driving him around until he fell asleep only to have him wake up the moment we put him down in his crib. There were books and soccer and jumping in the waves at the ocean. And his growing up.
Now looking forward to being a father himself.
Some years ago I bought my wife a cross stitch picture of this saying:
The decision to have a child is momentous.
It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.
So, there my heart is.
Outside my body.
Looking at and seeing the world in his own unique way.
And, in his own way, adding to and making the world a better place.
So, with the deepest gratitude and abiding prayers;
And with tears in my eyes…
P.S. And, the reality is I have not one heart, but two.
The other heart is walking his own path towards tomorrow.
But surrounded with the same love and same joy and same deep wonder and gratitude.
But today is not his birthday.
This morning we celebrate the children in our Joyful Noise program and the spirit and the special music they add to our worship. We also recognized and presented Bibles to our Third Grade students who have been meeting with Midge Keane for the last 10 weeks. And, if that were not enough to awaken our gratitude, while it is not on the Christian liturgical calendar, it is also Mother’s Day with all the meaning and memories that carries with it. With all that and more, I thought it would be a good Sunday to think together about this.
A number of years ago I attended a lecture targeted at those of us involved in youth ministry. I expected the lecture to be about the latest and greatest tips and How to… ideas, but the focus of the lecture, at least the part I remember and which impacted me, centered around our definition and understanding of family. The hour or so I spent that day changed the way I thought about and approached my work with middle school and high school students. It also changed my understanding of the opportunity and responsibility we have as a community of faith when it comes to the children and youth and young adults who grow up in our midst. Here’s the gist of what I learned that day.
Prior to World War II, when one talked about family, the assumption was one was talking about not just moms and dads and their children, but also about grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins. Even cousins several times removed. That was the definition of family. The reason being, at that time, most families lived in geographic proximity to one another. Grandparents lived next door to their children. Uncles and aunts lived around the corner. Cousins gathered outside to play with one another. One of results of this was there were always multiple adults involved in the lives of children. This was important not just when children were young and needed a lot of care, but maybe even more important as children moved through adolescence when the developmental task is to shape an identity separate from one’s parents. Any of us who have raised teenagers know what it feels like to live in the tension created by both loving and letting go, and by setting and holding onto boundaries that are constantly being tested. When families lived together this is what would happen. Teenagers would get mad at mom or dad and storm out the door only to end up sitting around the kitchen table at Uncle Bob’s and Aunt Jane’s. Or, finding their way to a grandparent to complain that mom and dad just did not understand, but having another adult there not only to listen to them and to take them seriously, but also to reinforce the family values.
Much of that changed following World War II and the Korean War.
The interstate highway system was built.
The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
Air travel became more affordable and accessible.
Because of all of that and more, families no longer lived around the corner from each other.
Grandparents lived half a continent away.
Cousins grew up rarely seeing each other.
Birthday cards replaced kitchen table conversations.
And, the definition of family changed.
Instead of parents and children and grandparents and cousins the definition of family became Mom and Dad and 2.4 children. In the years since I attended that lecture, our understanding of family has changed even more. Single parent families. Blended families. Gay parents. And, less children per family unit.
Do you see where this is leading?
That family network which worked so well for so long is no longer there for many of our children. Yet, the need for that network is as great as ever. When our children were teenagers I remember being told we need to we should have a conversation with our sons and ask them to name three adults, besides Shodie or me, who they could turn to if they needed help or when they needed someone with whom to talk when, for whatever reason, they did not feel they could talk with us. It served as a reminder to us that we needed to be intentional about the support system we helped put in place around our son’s lives.
Which brings me to today.
And, to Joyful Noise. And, to our Third Grade Bible class.
And, to so much more of who we are and what we do.
I love that children in our 3rd grade Bible Class learn about the Bible, but it is more important to me that they get to know Midge Keane. I love watching and listening to the Cherubs and the Choristers sing, but it is more important to me that they get to know Kathy Perry and John Lettieri. I love having the children come up front for the Time with the Children, but more than any lesson or prayer or conversation we have with them, it is more important to me that they have a minute to sit with and to talk with Kathy DiBiasi.
If I am right. And, I think I am.
In addition to all the love and care and concern and support we, as parents and grandparents, give our children and grandchildren, our children also need all the strong, caring, thoughtful, compassionate adults we can possibly stack around their lives. There cannot be too many.
And, this is where you come in.
All of you.
All of us.
We have a role to play and a responsibility to fulfill.
These are not only your children.
They are our children, as well.
We need to remember this…
We are family.
David Letterman’s sarcasm has made them famous,
But Top 10 lists have always captured our attention.
10 best colleges.
100 best high schools.
25 richest people.
10 most influential women.
5 most powerful men.
Let’s be honest, some part of our lives are measured by or measured against being…
The most beautiful or the most handsome.
The most powerful.
The most important.
Maybe it has always been that way.
Which brings me to this…
As you consider your own life and the pressures you face and the comparisons we make, consider also the Gospel and this brief story from the life of Jesus as told by the author of Matthew’s Gospel.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18: 1-5)
Biblical scholar, Douglas Hare, Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Seminary, reframes these verses this way. Jesus speaking to those who would be his followers.
“In a world left to its own devices people are continually trying to lord it over one another.
The rich over the poor.
The intelligent over the simple.
Adults over children.
Men over women.
Whites over blacks.
But not so with you.” (Interpretation: Matthew – p. 205)
These verses leave ample room for scholarly discussion about just what Jesus meant by becoming like a child.
Totally dependent on another?
Humble as opposed to arrogant?
All of which may be true.
And, while we don’t know for sure what Jesus meant, we do know this about the place of children in the culture in which he lived. They did not occupy the same social status then as they do for us today. Children, then, were expendable. Literally. If they were the wrong gender or were or became disabled or were no longer useful or you could no longer feed them, they could be turned out onto the streets to survive or not to survive on their own. A reality that continues to be true in too many parts of the world even today. And while we deeply value our children, back then, they were viewed primarily as an economic asset. The more children you had the more work that could get done and the more food you could grow or money you could make and the more certainty you had that some of them would survive long enough to care for you when you were older.
In the face of that reality, Jesus says:
Unless you become like one of them…
Unless you become like one of those children…
You will not enter or see or experience the Kingdom of God.
If we take the Bible seriously…
And a child like that is placed in our midst,
What do we think Jesus would be saying to us?
And where does that reality run up against the reality of your life and mine?
Or the priorities of the culture in which we live?
But, I don’t want to leave us with just that, because I think there is more here for us to consider. As you know I believe the Bible is a living document. Not just about then, but also about now. Not just about them, but also about you and me. That being the case, what if it were your child or your grandchild or one of the children who run up and down the aisle of the church or who sometimes squirm in their seats when they are sitting next to you or who smile at you when you add your dollar to the basket they hold.
And Jesus turns to you and says…
Become like one of them…
You and we will never know or see or understand or experience the Kingdom of God.
And since I have the floor here are three characteristics of children which, if we could recapture in our own lives, might help turn us, again, in the direction of God’s Kingdom come.
The first characteristic is wonder.
It is that ability not just to notice what is around us, but to see and to marvel at what is around us. Do you remember going for a walk with a young child who wants to stop and explore everything she sees?
Who skips rather than walks just because he can.
Who laughs as dandelion seeds blow away in the wind.
Who puts a stone in her pocket because it she thinks it is pretty.
Who points out to you the cloud in the sky that looks like a puppy.
Maybe you and I need to see each other and to see the world something like that.
To cultivate a way of seeing that stops us in our tracks and takes our breath away.
But, too often, we are too busy with the tasks at hand.
Too preoccupied by that which we think is important.
Too distracted by a hundred different demands to notice.
Unless you become like a child…
A second characteristic is the ability to imagine.
Children can turn a box into a castle.
A pot into a crown.
They grab hold of a baseball bat and become a home run hitter.
Or, kick a soccer ball and score the winning goal.
They are firefighters.
And mountain climbers.
And the world’s fastest runner.
And, invisible when they want and need to be.
This is not just pretend, is it?
Knowing one thing to be true, but acting in a different way?
In that moment when their imagination is most real and most active and most alive, they are that other – astronaut, mountain climber, home run hitter. We are glad for that moment when they can be anything they want.
But we are much more realistic than that.
And more practical than that.
And see things as they really are.
But, what if we need to be more like them.
That is, if we want to see or to know and to help bring about that which God imagines and intends. Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, but not as some day, but as right here and right now and among us. Is all of that just pie in the sky speculation or something more? Something that if we could recapture the imagination of children we might be able to begin to see clearly enough that we could then pull something of what we see into the moment we have and the circumstances we face right here and right now?
As People of Faith…
Maybe we are called to more like GE…
Able to imagine a better world and then build it.
(The new tagline for GE’s commercial is We imagine a better world and then build it. That tagline was used as our Call to Worship.)
Unless you become like a child…
And finally this…
Do you remember that stage when children ask, “Why?”
Why is the sky blue?
Why do I have to keep my shoes on?
Why is pixie dust only pretend?
Why do lights go out in a storm?
Why is his skin a different color than my skin?
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
Maybe we need to become a bit more like a four year old only with a bit more savvy in our questions.
Why are so many so hungry?
Why don’t some have a place to live?
Why does there continue to be so much violence?
Why are we so afraid of those who look different or who worship in a different way or have a different way of talking about that which we know and name as God? There are no easy answers, but we dare not give up on the questions.
And there they were…
The best friends of Jesus…
In the middle of their very adult, very intense, and very serious conversation;
When Jesus interrupts.
And places a child in their midst and says, “Unless you become like one of these…”