A friend posted on facebook that she didn’t let her class of second graders know it was her birthday until that very morning as they arrived at school. So, rather than a coordinated effort by caring room mothers who referenced Pinterest for the best possible teacher gift, her young students were on their own to plan something special. The result? An impromptu and clandestine collection was taken which garnered $1.46 in sweet pocket change that she could use for a coffee. And someone offered a paper ninja star.
What’s the most memorable gift that a child has offered you? Was it a pasta necklace or paper plate hat that you wore with pride? Teachers are loaded with stories about the incredible kindness of our youngest citizens! Maybe they should lead in some of our international diplomacy challenges?!
We read four verses in our worship today from Isaiah 11: 6The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
These verses are nestled in a larger passage that introduces God’s Savior. He will emerge as a young shoot out of a seemingly dead stump. It’s a family tree and goes back to Jesse, King David’s father. This new sprout will grow into a ruler whose leadership will shape a very different world. Natural enemies will live side by side peacefully. Reconciliation will happen between people, animals and the land. Children will sit by the nest of poisonous snakes playing happily, the parents unconcerned for their safety. Part of the folklore in my husband’s childhood is the time a rattlesnake slithered toward him when he was a toddler. His father leapt into action and heroically killed the snake with a shovel. These images of predators sunning themselves next to prey on God’s Holy Mountain are not natural! They kick up fears within us. But God is the author of this restored Creation so anything is possible!
Edward Hicks was a Quaker pastor who repressed his artistic talents for many years to honor the aesthetic austerity of his faith. But his love for capturing the beauty of this world with paints ultimately prevailed. He was so drawn to the Biblical image of paradise from Isaiah 11 that he painted it with the title, The Peaceable Kingdom. He did at least 62 variations of the same scene, always including the animals along with a child. But he changed up the people to portray the divisions of his time. In one of the paintings the background depicted Native Americans signing a peace treaty with William Penn. In another a delegation of Quakers are talking respectfully with Native Americans. Hicks sought to translate the radical nature of Isaiah’s vision into the terms his world would understand.
As Christians we understand this passage as a foreshadowing of Jesus. In His ministry we see barriers broken down between enemy groups. He rebuked his disciples when they tried to keep parents from bogging down His ministry by bringing their children to Him. He immediately availed Himself to these smallest followers, the text telling us that He took them in His arms and blessed them. He ate meals with IRS men and didn’t shy away from physical contact with lepers, the Corona Virus victims of His day. Women held important roles in His movement and children were identified as role models for getting into the Kingdom. The prophet’s vision of God’s Holy Mountain is fulfilled in full color with Jesus’ ministry.
We count ourselves as blest to have so many children in our church family. We love their wisdom and their reverence. Their capacity to understand spiritual truths surpasses ours many times. They haven’t yet developed a rational mind that gets in the way of accepting seemingly impossible realities by faith. A few examples come to my mind.
When I served at East Congregational Church on the east side of Grand Rapids, my second-grade daughter’s class visited the church for a tour one day. The church was within walking distance of the school. The sanctuary has a gothic design with high ceilings and stunning stained glass windows. The students’ reactions to this sacred space was to offer some ooohs and ahhs and then to get quiet. They had a natural inclination toward reverence in a holy setting! One little boy ran his fingers across one of the window of deep blue hues and murmured, “I’ll never wash my hand again!”
One of the little boys in this congregation was getting ready for his birthday party. He was turning 5! He said to his mom, “I’m going to invite God to my birthday party…and He’ll come!” The year before, when the time came for him to blow out the four candles on his birthday cake, the electricity went out. He was somewhat fearful but his grandmother, without missing a beat, said, “God just turned out the lights so you could really see your birthday candles!” (oh, to have a deep theology like that on tap!) So this soon-to-be five-year-old had a clear sense that God showed up to that party uninvited. This year he wanted to be sure to include God on the guest list!
At a Christian conference about 15 years ago one of the presenters described a morning with her nephew, Lance. She was staying at their house for a visit and learning the challenging schedule of a three year old! He was up at 6:30AM, already fed breakfast and inviting her to come to his show. Each of them sat on a stool in a dark room. He had a flashlight to illuminate his face and with dramatic flair he proclaimed, “Prepare to be amazed!” He played with a spider-man doll for about 20 seconds in the light of the battery-operated stage lighting. But then he threw the doll on the floor and ran away, minus his diaper and smelling of syrup! And she was….amazed!
People were streaming forward by the center aisle at a colleague’s parish to receive communion. A little girl in one of the front pews had already gone forward to receive the bread and juice. Now she curled up next to her mother, facing backwards so that she could watch the rest of the church members stream forward. Her head wasn’t over the back of the pew so those in line for the sacrament couldn’t see her. But to each one, as they passed her, she blew them a kiss. And some folks think children should only take communion when we’ve been able to “teach” them all the intellectual background to Jesus’ supper?! I daresay she grasped what it meant to be included in this love feast better than most of the adults in the sanctuary!
For a short while an older man came to our church with his young grandson. The boy was probably 7 years old and seemed not to have had any experience with church. When the plate holding the bread was passed down their pew on a communion Sunday, those nearby could hear the grampa say, in a loud whisper, “This is Jesus’ Body. This is Jesus’ blood.” The little boy, with an appreciation for mystery, participated in the meal and knew that he belonged.
Dr. Wes Stafford is the President of Compassion International, the agency through which we have sponsored three children around the globe for many years now. He is an internationally acclaimed advocate for children’s rights and a man of deep Christian faith. In his book, Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most, he challenges our Western culture to minister to our children. He recognizes the great capacity our children have for spiritual matters, something that doesn’t come as easily to us if we learn the faith as adults. He states that only 23% of people become Christians if they haven’t been exposed to the faith as children. So why aren’t we prioritizing our youngest citizens exposure to the faith while they’re still open to it? Are we providing the stepping stones they need to come to us from families where parents are seeking out a church home and other homes where children may need to be brought here by a friend? Stepping stones mark out a path in a terrain that might otherwise be confusing to navigate. We have three staff members whose job description is to tend to the spiritual development of our kids: a paid Nursery Attendant for our youngest members, a Christian Education Coordinator who leads our children in Christian Education classes and a Youth Director who is shaping faith through the Middle School and Senior High Youth Groups. 10 % or a tithe of our annual budget goes toward this priority of anchoring our children in the faith before they head into the world on their own. Additionally I lead a Confirmation Class for 6-8th graders that takes them to different churches and the Jewish Temple during a year of studying the faith. A talented church member coaxes wonderful music out of our elementary-aged children who sing and play bells for us in worship. As the demands on our families increase outside of the church walls, are we vigilant to place stepping stones in new places so that they will find their way here? Or do we cling to systems that worked five, ten, thirty years ago?
The Forum on Child and Family Statistics gave a report of childhood wellbeing that offers findings from 2017. There were, at that time, 74 million children under age 18 living in the U.S. 17% of all children lived in households classified as food insecure. African Americans and Native Americans have a higher infant mortality rate than white or Asian households. 13% of kids ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Children in divorced households had a more than doubled likelihood of having serious emotional or behavioral difficulties than those in homes with married parents, an increase from 4% to 9%. Boys are nearly double in likelihood over girls to have serious emotional or behavioral difficulties. In 2017, 17 1/2% of all children 0-17 years were in poverty: 10.9% of white kids compared to 28.7% of black children and 25% of Hispanic children. 8.4% of kids in families with married parents lived in poverty as compared to 40.7% in female-only headed households.
Hearing these figures, we are given a glimpse into what lions have ravaged our communities and world? As we hear discrepancies in how different races and ethnicities fare in the U.S., we discern what snakes lie coiled and ready to bring down children who find themselves in circumstances over which they have no control? If we are followers of Jesus, the One who took the children in His arms and blessed them, our role as adults is to address issues of social justice for children who come through these doors and those who never will. As we think of that remarkable vision from Isaiah 11, I wonder where we need the greatest promise of new life? Where have you seen a shoot courageously come out of a seemingly dead stump, refusing to be silenced? I wonder if we’re open to seeing life in new ways or if we find greater comfort in keeping things as they’ve always been?
God is the One who ushers in the Peaceable Kingdom—but we are called to sacrifice from our well-being and set out the stepping stones of faith to point the Way!
When we worshiped at Temple Emmanuel with the Confirmation Class in January there was a beautiful prayer from their book of worship that we prayed together, Jews and Christians, young and old, men and women. I’ll close with those words now, in English, not Hebrew!
May we, the children of the world, not repeat the mistakes of past generations. Free us from the traps of old arguments and ancient battles. May we, the children of the world, discover a new way of living, where the riches of some are not at the expense of others. May we, the children of the world, use our energy and optimism to overcome the barriers and fences of the past. May we, the children of the world, have a new vision for this planet, so that we waste less and conserve more. May we, the children of the world, live in harmony with You, Your creation, and each other. Amen.