Children, Discipleship, and the Kingdom of God

I remember my father delighting in repeating two old world sayings which summed up his need for an easy solution in relation to his argumentative children:

Do as I say, not as I do!  and  Children are meant to be seen and not heard!

I don’t think for one moment he really believed these saying to be true. In fact he would always laugh as he recited them. Yet, I suspect like a lot of parents he felt torn. Not believing these sayings to be true he nevertheless resorted to them in the hope that they would provide him with a simple solution in dealing with the challenges his children presented.

What are your memories of the world you grew-up in? I grew up in a world of solid suburban values supported by the social provisions of healthcare and universal education accessible to all and free at the point of use.  Looking back in hindsight the N.Z. I grew up in seems from this distance a place where life was sweet, uncomplicated, and safe. I grew up in a golden age of national prosperity funded on the back of a forty-year economic boom which began to unravel only after  Britain’s entry into what was then called the European Economic Community in 1973.

As a child, the world I grew up in gave me freedom. I was free to go out on my bike, which was my only form of transport for both getting to and from school and for exploring the world around me. My friends and I rode the country roads and explored the disused water filled and overgrown gravel pits and pine forests that surrounded the area where we lived. No-doubt many Americans of my age remember growing up in a similar kind of  (suburban) world.

The world I now find myself living in seems such a different place from the world of my memories. The prospect of allowing my granddaughter a freedom to roam about on her bicycle exploring the world around her is beyond thinking about.

As I look around me I see a confused picture of a society where we are both obsessively anxious and at the same time, callous in the extreme in our attitudes towards children. Millions of children are the obsessive focus of anxiety driven parental over indulgence. We are beginning to note the fruits of anxiety-driven, intrusive parenting in a prolonged period of adolescent dependence now extending for many into early adult years. At the same time the results of the recent American Survey reveal that in 2012 16.4 million children now live in poverty.

Child poverty is not simply being monetarily poor. After all many of us can legitimately claim that: we may have been poor but we were loved and happy. Therefore, child poverty is a relative term inclusive of multiple deprivations effecting a wide rage of life experiences. At the risk of stereotyping myself as a frequent listener to NPR, I heard this last week a commentator speaking about research findings that show clearly how poor life prospects can be linked to the effect of early poor nutrition on brain development.

It has been said that the truest picture of any society or other social grouping can be seen in its attitudes and treatment of children.

The images created by this morning’s gospel reading evoke a deep sympathy in me for Jesus! He hears us arguing about which among us is the more important. I imagine him in desperation taking hold of the child nearest to him and confounding those around him, he proclaims whoever, welcomes this child welcomes me and not only me but the one who sent me.  Mark (:30-37

Mark gives us a glimpse in two places of Jesus’ attitude towards children. In two weeks we will encounter the second and arguable the more famous – Mark 10:13-15 suffer the little children to come unto me. In the context of 1st century Palestine Jesus’s comments about children run strongly against cultural assumptions. In doing so Jesus once again is standing in the prophetic tradition which presents women and children as the ultimate symbols of vulnerability and dependency – and thereby powerful images of an essential quality of God.

In the long march of time some things remain constant. At the level of social attitudes and actions children evoke powerful ambivalence in us. Our 21st century Western ambivalence towards children is exemplified in a number of ways. Social ambivalence towards children is an expression of the fact that children are our future, yet, in the present moment they are often experienced as an inconvenience, a burden on our patience and our pockets.

We sharply distinguish between our experience as parents and our attitudes as general members of society. As parents we draw a too sharp distinction between my-our children – and children in general. Towards my-our children we are often over-anxious, over protective, and over indulgent. As taxpaying members of society we tend to think about children in general.

As a society we express attitudes of callous neglect towards children in general. We think little of cutting social welfare provisions in child and family healthcare, and in education because we claim they are too expensive. When we act at this level we are not thinking about my-our children. We are thinking about all those children in general, whose parents should be able to take better individual care of their children and not expect me or us, to do if for them!

The Episcopal Church is greying. For generations we have neglected the formation of our children. Sunday School as a form of child minding that is an insult to the natural intelligence and curiosity of our children does not qualify as an adequate response to the formation needs of our children.

One of the strengths of our Cathedral is the long commitment to Children’s Ministry. Often this area has been the focus of tension and has been the context for strong contention.  While this is often difficult to manage I see this as an indication of the passionate importance that our parents and teachers place on the formation of our children. Children and youth formation is important enough to passionately disagree over what is best.

The Diocese of Arizona has one of the strongest commitments at diocesan level to children’s education and youth ministry. Nevertheless, despite this, a survey of parish budgets would still reveal how little actual investment is made by many of our parishes in children and youth ministries. As a result nationally among the mainline churches the Episcopal Church has the poorest retention rate among adolescents and young adults. Now this is saying something in a culture where according to the Pew Religion Survey 2010, all churches, whether mainline, nondenominational or evangelical, are irrelevant to 30% and rising of mellennials, i.e. people born since 1981.

The same ambivalences towards children found at large in society regrettably also find expression within Church communities. Most churches when asked about their number one priority will say, growth. Thinking generally as members of a congregation we connect our desire for growth with encouraging families with children and young people. When asked more individually to reflect on the shift in our personal attitudes required to encourage growth, our increasingly greying Boomers rail against the interruptions to the dignity and contemplation of their worship occasioned by the presence of families with children and young people.

For Jesus, the child is not a focus of sentimental dreaming. Nor is the presence of children a cause of irritation. Jesus takes and holds up the child as an image of his own experience of vulnerability. The image coming to me from this morning’s gospel is an image of Jesus’s vulnerability and loneliness as he begins his long journey on the road to Jerusalem.

Jesus is not inviting us to become sentimental about the child as a figure of lost innocence. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is his lonely road and he invites us to become his companions on this road.  He is not holding up the child as a model of discipleship. He is not saying that disciples are those who become innocent like a child.  Jesus is showing us that when we welcome, love and support the child in our midst we welcome God into our lives and thereby become disciples.

Jesus is telling us if we want to be his disciples we will have to place ourselves at the service of others. The clearest image of serving others requires us, with all our hearts, to desire to welcome children into our midst.

What more powerful image is there of  service to others than an image of ourselves placing the interests of others before our own? The contours of this image are those of the welcoming of the child as an expression of the welcome of God into the heart of our communities.  This is what it means to become Jesus’ disciples and lovers of God.


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