Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘children’

Self-Giving, Love-Bearing

Mark 10:17-31

When I was a kid [well, I still am a kid, but just an older one], like most kids, I understood reward and punishment pretty well. Do well in school–get rewarded with good grades and a pat on the back from teachers and parents. Goof off and cause trouble—end up in detention and get grounded for what seemed like life. Be nice to your sister—perhaps ice cream may follow. Annoy and terrorize her on purpose—get privileges taken away. It all seemed so simple.

rewardKid

Until it wasn’t.

As I grew older and passed through that wonderfully chaotic and confusing time of adolescence, I started to realize that the rhythm of reward and punishment didn’t always hold true. Sometimes, for example, I did something really nice for another student, like inviting him to sit with me at lunch when no one else would. I thought that I would be rewarded. I wasn’t, in fact. Instead, it backfired. Some of my friends weren’t happy about it. And the student I sat with soon proved to be annoying and also a bit of a troublemaker. Sure, perhaps my intention was good, but I certainly did not get rewarded for my “good” deed.

This shook me up, because at that point in my life my faith was often based on doing good deeds or believing something “right” to gain a reward. This philosophy worked when I was younger and actually felt quite good.

Until it stopped being true.
Until I started to feel empty inside.

Until I started questioning whether believing and doing all these things would really bring me any kind of reward.

I started questioning whether that was really the point at all.

There are many stories I could tell you—about times when I woke up to this reality. The more I lived, the more I realized that following rules or doing good deeds for the sake of some reward wasn’t really the healthiest and most honest way to live.

Really, I was learning about the difference between self-sacrifice and. self-giving.

Now, I don’t know how you were raised in your particular faith tradition [or lack thereof], but as for me, I was taught that helping others was a good thing by my parents. The reasoning was pretty straightforward:

Because that’s the right thing to do.

Of course, for any inquisitive kid or teen that answer isn’t enough.

kidquestion

So I found my own path, and that path led me to evangelical Christianity for a spell. And yes, I won’t deny that I had some pretty fantastic experiences, made great friends, and learned a lot. But one thing that always confused me was this whole self-sacrifice thing.

It usually goes like this:
Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice for our sins by suffering and then dying on the cross.

So…it shouldn’t be too much to ask for you to give up 2 hours of your week to go to church, should it?! That’s your self-sacrifice. Now sit and think about Jesus.

This line of thinking went further as I got more and more involved in the church.
Pretty soon, self-sacrifice meant giving up a lot of things, and not just time. I needed to sacrifice some friendships; some activities I liked to do; I was held to a different, albeit confusing moral standard as it pertained to sexuality; most importantly, I had to even sacrifice parts of myself.

I didn’t know it at the time, but for a few years of my life, I lost part of my own identity. I did things that I didn’t really feel comfortable or good. I gave up things that I was passionate about. I hung out with people who were like-minded and Christian like me in favor of hanging out with the kids I preferred to be with, who were different and even sometimes criticized by the Christians.

Does this story ring true for some of you?
Have religions or a church or certain people convinced you to sacrifice a part of yourself?

Allow me to quickly lay out a definition of self-sacrifice and compare it to self-giving.

Say you give and give and give some more [time, resources, energy] to someone. You think that you are doing a great act of service. You are relentless in your giving. Why? Because you think that eventually you receive something for your tireless acts of service. But eventually, you burn out. You’re human. You get tired, frustrated, and perhaps a little angry. You’ve sacrificed so much of your time and resources, and you just don’t see any return. And in that process, you’ve not only sacrificed yourself, you’ve sacrificed the very person you thought you were helping.

Why? Because now you’re bitter.
You throw up your hands in disgust and proclaim: Here I am, killing myself, giving so much, and what do I get in return? Nothing!

Resentment for that person follows.
You start to blame him/her.

I’ve seen this way too much in life!

So that’s self-sacrifice—a path to unhealthiness, burnout, and resentment.

Self-sacrifice comes from a place of fear and loss. We give and give [even more than we should or can] because we feel that we lack something. We are not whole inside and so we overcompensate by sacrificing too much until we burn out.

Now, how about self-giving?

giving-heartSelf-giving is not about your ego or fear or loss. Giving of self, I would argue, is a spiritual act, and comes from a place of wholeness and true humanity. If you feel whole inside, you are inspired to give. You give profoundly, creatively, and freely. Giving feels great while you’re doing it, because you’re not thinking about getting any reward! Self-giving emerges from you.

Think about that for a moment while we transition to a story in Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus of Nazareth is again on a journey with his disciples and on the way, he meets a man who falls to his knees before Jesus and says:
Good teacher, what do I have to do get eternal life?

A very legitimate question for someone who understood reward and self-sacrifice.
But Jesus, like usual, was snarky, and didn’t answer his question. He instead asked his own questions.

Why do you call me good?

In other words, don’t butter me up so I give you the answer you want to hear just so you’ll feel better about yourself.

And then this: You know the commandments.
Ah, yes! The man must have been thrilled. The list of sacrifices! Excellent, let’s see…adultery? Nope, didn’t do that, check. Stealing? Nope, I’m rich, so check. Bear false witness? Now way, check. Murder? Oh goodness, no, check. No defrauding? Got it, check. And Honor mom and dad? But of course, check.

At this point, the man probably was smiling ear to ear, ready to go home with heaven guaranteed.

wohoo

But Jesus didn’t let him off the hook.
Mark’s writer says that Jesus loved him when he said:

You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

homer-doh-moment

Maybe Jesus loved this guy, but it was tough love.
For the man was rich, and he wasn’t ready to part with anything he had. So he grieved.
He grieved that this was the requirement.

Notice that Jesus didn’t tell him to give away all his possessions. The Greek wording for possessions doesn’t refer to an Xbox and a Iphone 6. It refers to land and property. Most likely this guy owned a lot of land and real estate. The last thing he wanted to do was to sell any of that in order to help the poor! What about all those other sacrifices he had already made!

It was a teaching moment for the disciples, and they were most certainly shocked. How could it be so hard for a wealthy, respected member of an elite social class to enter the reign of God? Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle? That’s really hard to do! Unless it’s a really, really small camel…like a mini camel or something.

brick-bible-500wi

The disciples’ world was upset, because they saw hierarchies and social levels and God favoring the rich. Jesus saw a world in which women, children, lepers, and poor people were the first.
So Peter jumped up to try to reassure his ego, to remind Jesus that he and other disciples are still good, because:

Look, Jesus, we’ve left everything and followed you. Right?

Jesus seems to ignore Peter’s attempt to get the gold star.
Instead, he closes with a profound statement.

Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

Land and property and family were the important attachments in the world. Probably this is still true in many ways.
The rich always have plenty of possessions—passing them on to future generations.
The poor always have little to none—losing land, property, and even family.
But in God’s reign, there is and will be balance.
Land and property, family and community, will be returned to the least of these.

And according to Jesus, this “reign” or “kingdom” of God is not something to aspire to, or to perform deeds to possess, but it is a reign that is present now.
All the rules and commandments that pious people spend their lives trying to follow do not get them any reward, as they think.

Self-sacrifice only leads to more people being sacrificed.

It’s actually about giving of self—what we have within ourselves. It’s returning balance to the world so that everyone has food and shelter and community and abundant life.

You see, the man who fell to his knees and then grieved; the disciples; all of us—we get distracted by the whole self-sacrifice thing and following commands to get a reward.

All religions struggle with self-sacrifice and it can go bad in many ways. Sometimes, it leads to people hating themselves. I’ve seen that. People are so hard on themselves and they sometimes even wish misery on themselves in a masochistic way. Other times, sacrifice can lead to people letting others walk all over them, even abuse them.

And as I mentioned before, sacrifice only leads to more sacrifice. These days many claim that those involved in “acts of terrorism,” whether religiously-motivated or not—do so out of mental illness. But so often, these acts of violence—whether in a school, temple, place of worship, or in public places—are committed by individuals who think they are self-sacrificing.

So all people of faith and those who do not claim any faith, let’s move away from self-sacrifice towards self-giving.

Let’s cultivate compassion within ourselves, because that will enable us to show true compassion to others. Caring for others requires caring for oneself.

Let’s give of ourselves, because giving is not sacrifice.
Giving is sharing.

And yes, giving is absolutely receiving at the same time!
Both parties benefit when someone gives.
And the reason for this is that when we truly give of ourselves to another, we stop separating our feelings from that person’s feelings. We experience real empathy, for both of us have a shared experience.

Friends, give of yourselves.

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It’s All About Relationship

Mark 10:2-16

Take a moment to think about the important relationships in your life.

Now, think about the boundaries and rules you set in those relationships.

Do those rules and boundaries enhance your relationships or hinder them?

Obviously, society as a whole sets rules and laws. Such rules are supposed to keep people safe and to enable a higher quality of life. Families do the same thing. Parents set rules for their children—supposedly for the same reason. We set rules and boundaries with our brothers and sisters, our partners and spouses, and even our friends. But…

Do our rules actually help us connect to each other in healthy relationship?

This is an important question to ask, because relationships move the world.
Relationships really matter.

And in a world in which violence, political posturing, religious propaganda, and materialism continue to drive and distract people—relationships could very well be the salve that leads us to healing and community.

In this Mark story, we find Jesus of Nazareth in a crowd of people, once again facing his religious peers, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were testing Jesus by asking him somewhat absurd and impossible-to-answer questions. Imagine much of what political debates look like. Candidates are paraded in front of us and asked a barrage of questions—many of them not really having the ability to answer them. In the end, it is often which candidate looks LESS foolish who wins such debates.

Town-Hall-Debate-Meme

It’s a setup. And often, the real questions that could lead to some positive changes are never asked. For example, after yet another shooting in a school in the United States [in Oregon], how many concrete questions will be asked of presidential candidates regarding swift and federal gun laws that could combat this sad and horrific violence? Most likely, the questions will be ambiguous as best, and each candidate according to his/her party line will vaguely address it. But they will never get to the point.

It’s about relationships. Gun control laws have nothing to do with politics, or religion, or freedoms, or any of the absurd back and forth with the NRA.

It’s about relationship—protecting vulnerable children from such violence; raising youth to consider alternatives to guns in order to resolve arguments in the street or the classroom; giving incentive to gun shop owners to respectfully and honestly run their businesses without fear; pushing aside partisan politics to curb gun violence and to promote more…

Relationship building.

But that’s not what happens. And that didn’t happen when the Pharisees debated Jesus.
This is why, I think, that this part of Mark’s Gospel is so often misunderstood.

First of all, context alert. We’re talking 1st and 2nd Century Israel and Palestine.
And, we’re talking about Jewish subcultures. Men married women.

Women were property and so were their children.
Men could remarry or marry more than one woman.
Women had no rights.

And now we rejoin the story. The Pharisees are asking Jesus about marriage laws.
But there’s a twist. Remember John the Baptizer, the guy who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan? Jesus’ cousin? Well, he was killed by Herod Antipas for saying that Herod’s divorce and remarriage was not lawful.

So the Pharisees ask Jesus this question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” anticipating a response that might make him guilty of treason.

whaaat-2That was the political distraction.

The religious distraction goes all the way back to the book of Deuteronomy [the last book of the Torah]. There were different schools of thought in Judaism about divorce. Some thought that a man could only divorce a woman if she committed adultery. Others pretty much said that a man could divorce a woman if she looked at him and made funny faces or burned dinner.

Jesus choose not to answer the Pharisees’ question. He asks them a question!
“What did Moses command you?”

This is was a trick question, because Moses never did actually command anything about divorce. Instead, the book of Deuteronomy was created as a guide and interpretation to life in that era and part of the world. As every religion does, Judaism adapted to societal changes and thus, rules changed. Deuteronomy reflected that, and so technically when the Pharisees respond with: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” they were making the legal argument, according to religious law.

But Jesus flips it over.
“Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”

The Pharisees may have been very good at quoting scripture and trying to make others look bad, but they were now grouped together with the Egyptian Pharaoh, the arch enemy of the Israelites in the Moses story, who also was hard of heart.

Well, that must have embarrassed or at least royally ticked off the Pharisees.

Jesus isn’t done.
He moves on from divorce to marriage itself. He talks about God’s creation and instead of referencing Deuteronomy, he quotes Genesis.

Jesus reminds them that from the very start of things, God created “them” male and female. There is no hierarchy.
A man leaves his father and mother and joins with his wife.
They become one.
And what God has joined together, let no one separate.

I’ve heard this quote a million times—either as part of a wedding, or in some hateful, misguided propaganda against gay and lesbian couples.

Leviticus

But I said that we’d not let ourselves get distracted with those things and that we would focus on relationships instead, because that’s what Jesus was doing here.

He shifted the whole conversation from religious divorce laws to relationships—relationships God intended to be important and life-giving.

But let’s not dump on the Pharisees. Jesus’ own followers were still harping on the dogma and doctrinal laws and missing the point. After the Pharisees scene, Jesus is with the disciples in a house, and they are asking him again about divorce.

Jesus’ response is tricky, if you don’t know the context.

Basically, his statement: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” is flipping the script again. Remember that in this culture and era men had all the rights. Adultery was defined like this: if a man had an affair with a married woman he committed adultery against that woman’s husband; if a married woman had an affair with anyone, she committed adultery against her husband. In other words, women were always to blame, and neither could they divorce their husbands. So Jesus’ words were blasphemous for that group to hear.

But his point was well-made: if God created humans equally male and female, why are women so powerless and considered property of men?

Likewise, why were divorced women left to suffer and starve, isolated from society?

Why were so-called “followers” of God’s law disenfranchising people, dehumanizing them, and pushing them to the margins?

And he drives it home when he welcomes children.

Children were [and I would argue that they are] the most powerless in the world. They don’t ask to be brought into this crazy mess of a planet, but here they are. Often they are neglected, abused, ignored, and considered property.

Side note: many last week were gushing over Pope Francis’ baby kissing episodes and the little girl from California who ran out to meet him, eluding security guards, delivering her personal letter to him. Consider, though, that many people were surprised, shocked, amazed even that the Pope would pay attention to children, as if it were something extra special or supernatural. Really?

It seems that many of us in the world don’t expect adults [especially religious rock stars] to embrace children.

Further, how many of you really know why the little girl ran to the Pope? The letter was about her parents who are undocumented. They have been living and working in the U.S. for years—picking fruits and vegetables. They are in real danger of being deported. Her letter was to ask the Pope to consider the many human beings who are mistreated and discriminated against because of outdated immigration laws. As a child, she was simply asking for religious people [who claim to love Jesus and love children] to work towards immigration reform so kids like her can be with their parents.

In spite of what some have said, I don’t think that Pope Francis welcoming her and receiving her letter was at all like the scene of Jesus of Nazareth calling the children to him. The kids in Mark’s story didn’t have to evade security guards and secret service; they only had to deal with annoyed disciples.

Further, when the disciples tried to shoo the children away, Jesus was furious. He called them out. He told them: Do not stop the children; for the reign of God belongs to them—not because they’re cute or good press or promote my agenda, but because they are the least. They are the women who are left out; they are lepers pushed away from society; they are Samaritans who are hated; they are the little ones, and you should bless them and love them.

It’s about relationships.

Friends, do this, please!
Any time someone or some church tries to use scripture as a way to exclude people, or disenfranchise certain groups, or to promote a political or even a religious agenda—redirect the conversation.

Don’t feel that you have to answer trap questions.

Instead, you ask the questions.

When someone claims that gay or lesbian people are outside of the Bible’s definition of marriage, and therefore, God doesn’t approve, ask them a question:

What did Jesus command?

When someone asks how your church could accept transgender people, or those who are in gender transition, or those who are still discovering themselves, ask them a question:

What did Jesus command?

When someone wonders how any American Christian could be friends with a Muslim, ask them this question:

What did Jesus command?

That question will most likely lead to silence, because people who use religion to justify their prejudice aren’t thinking about loving their neighbor as they love themselves.

And then, when children’s voices are silenced by guns; when women are made powerless and stripped of their human rights; when refugees are turned away; when addicts are locked outside the church; when people without papers are discriminated against and called names;

Remember, it’s all about relationship.

We are all related to each other on this planet. We were made that way. In all the craziness of culture, religion, and politics, it’s easy to forget that. But remember, we’re all related to each other. And the more we emphasize our connection to each other, the more we will find our way, the more we’ll show compassion and understanding; the more we’ll share; the more we’ll learn and grow.

It’s about relationship.

All in it Together

Mark 9:38-50

POPE-A-LOOZA

popeLast Friday and Saturday, I had the opportunity to spend time with friends in Philadelphia while Pope Francis visited for the World Meeting of Families. I am fortunate to have a few friends in Center City who live in an apartment building right near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Art Museum where much of the festivities took place. It was a really fun and interesting experience. I enjoyed being with the hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, and neighboring and far-away U.S. states. It was also a surreal experience to see all the roads closed in the city, and no cars. People were free to walk and bike everywhere without hindrance.

It felt kind of like the Netherlands!

JoshBike

It was fun biking around the city on Saturday morning with a couple thousand people. I also thought it was hilarious to see people dressed up in pope outfits, complete with the papal hats. People cheered as we biked through their neighborhoods as if we had accomplished something important.

After the bike ride, my friends and I walked to the Ben Franklin Bridge which was open to pedestrians. It was pretty cool to walk across the bridge the reaches to New Jersey, without the car traffic and tolls.

bridgeBF

While we were there, groups of people marched into Philly. Here’s a clip of a group from the New Jersey Diocese.

This led us to Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the Saturday evening concerts and papal address. Not sure how many were actually there, but certainly we were not alone!

crowdsAs we made our way as close as we could to the stage, we saw rows and rows of porta-potties–perhaps more than we saw people?

portopotties

Of course, we had to pass through one of the security checkpoints. It took less time than it usually takes in the airport. People were nice. We laughed and passed though without incident. Of course, others who tried to pass the checkpoints on the other side of the Parkway [closer to City Hall] were not so lucky. A bit busier!

phillynight

Once on the Parkway, somehow we were close enough to see this. Apparently, the Pope is fast. Or at least, his little white golf cart is.

We stayed to hear musicians like the Fray and Aretha Franklin perform. Then, the Pope gave his address. More later on that.

Now give me a moment to reflect on this experience via this story in the Gospel of Mark.

andnow

In Mark’s Gospel, following Jesus is about following the Jesus way. Here we see a scene in which those who follow the way are contrasted with those who don’t. But it’s not what we might assume. John, one of Jesus’ disciples, claims that there are some people who are not following “them” as opposed to Jesus or the way. Obviously, the disciples can easily forget that it’s actually not about them. Also, John is complaining about people doing something [i.e. exorcising a demon] that they themselves could not do. And John’s comments are ill-timed, because Jesus had just dropped the inclusive teaching about welcoming children. Now John and the other disciples want to exclude, claiming that “those others” were not one of them?

Jesus’ response is pretty clear:

Stop criticizing people who are actually trying to do the same thing we are. Who is not against us is for us.

For Jesus, even a simple act of kindness like giving a cup of water to someone is enough to be part of the way—part of Jesus’ team.

But then Jesus gets mad and is quoted as saying some pretty harsh things to those [like John and the disciples and anyone else] who get in the way of the inclusive, welcoming nature of the reign of God. In fact, anyone who causes “little ones” [i.e. those who are marginalized, forgotten, pushed down, persecuted] to fall will be in HUGE trouble. Cue the awful image of a large millstone around your neck as you are thrown into the sea to drown.

And then we get into body parts. The hand, the foot, the eye. If any of these cause someone to fall away, cut them off, thrown them out.

And…SIDE NOTE!

The word hell is not appropriately translated. It should be more like Gehenna which is the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. It’s a place where child sacrifices were made long ago, before Jesus’ time. That place was a symbol of death and destruction—a real place with no pitchforks, devils in red suits, or fires.

Frankly, Jesus uses such strong imagery because people were really divided–separated by social class, religion, and customs. And even people who were trying to do something compassionate or good might get criticized by others simply because of their particular religious or political affiliation.

So Jesus adds salt to a wound, but it is meant to heal:

Being salted with fire is all about healing. First century medicine utilized salt and fire to heal physical wounds. But in this case, the healing is mental, spiritual, and social. And it also leads to peace.

In any positive and impactful social movement, people outside of the “movement catch on and participate in their own way. This should always be affirmed. In fact, in my opinion, the only thing stopping religions from cooperating around the world are the people who are the “insiders” in each tradition. They put up barricades and roadblocks, like I saw this past weekend in Philly. They don’t affirm other traditions, even when they do good in the world. They hold tightly to their theologies and ideologies and prejudices. No cooperation happens.

I’m not Catholic. And I certainly don’t think that one person, i.e. Pope Francis, is more important or that his words are necessarily more special than others. But when someone or a group of people strive for justice, compassion, and peacemaking–I don’t care what religion they claim, or if they claim no religion.

They’re on my team if they care about those who are marginalized. I’m with them if they keep their saltiness but also accept and affirm the saltiness of others. We’re all living on this planet together. Being at peace with each other means swallowing pride and admitting that no one gets it right.

We have the opportunity and responsibility as people to join with those around us, not just because they claim the same religion or because they think like us– but because we care about humanity, this world, and recognize the pain we cause each other.

What I saw and experienced in Philly during the Pope’s visit was a large group of people who simply wanted to connect. Religion took a backseat. Politics hovered over us, threatening to distract us. But in the end, it was an “all-in” moment.

In his seemingly spontaneous address on Saturday, Pope Francis spoke about love and family. “In the family there are indeed difficulties, but those difficulties are overcome with love,” “Hatred is not capable of dealing with any difficulty and overcoming any difficulty. Division of hearts cannot overcome any difficulty. Only love can overcome.”

I’d like to think that he defines family more loosely than the Catholic Church does. I’d like to believe that he defines family as the great big human family–not narrowly defined as a mom, dad, and kids. Pope Francis’ past comments seem to reflect a more compassionate and accepting view of same sex couples, gay and lesbian folk, and transgender people. Likewise, this pontiff has reached out verbally and otherwise to atheists and people of other religions. And he has expressed great sorrow and pain over the culture of child abuse and deceit that has plagued various dioceses.

I won’t agree with most of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic tradition. But that is less important. For I do think that hatred among any of us is only destructive and distracting. As a human family, we need to love each other, and that is unifying. But it will mean accepting and affirming our unique, salty selves and doing the same for all others. In this way we can strive for peace and be at peace in ourselves.

And woe to any of us who try to undermine anyone else who is doing just and compassionate work. May we love each other as we are, may we find ways to cooperate for common good, and may it lead to peace.

My final thoughts after a full weekend.
Hatred is destructive & distracting. Love builds and heals. May we reflect this in our cooperation and in our accepting of all people.

It’s Good to be a Kid!

Mark 9:30-37

kid1.jpegFear.

It is a feeling that all of us have. Fear is programmed into us. That’s okay, though, because fear is actually meant to protect us. We are born with a sense of fear so we can react to things or situations that could be dangerous or harmful to our emotional or physical health.

kid2.jpeg

Obviously, babies cry when they’re afraid, even if they are startled by a loud noise that is completely harmless—like an older sibling banging drums or something. Babies also experience stranger anxiety and will cling to their parents when confronted by people they don’t recognize.

Or maybe strange people like me who make scary faces at them.

As babies become toddlers, around 10-18 months old, they start to experience separation anxiety, becoming emotionally distressed when one or both caregivers/parents leave.

4-6 year old kids start to fear things that aren’t based in reality, like monsters or ghosts.

kid3.jpeg

…Or Great Aunt Martha’s sloppy kisses and awful casseroles.

Okay, maybe that last fear is a real one.

Anyway, once kids are 7-12 years old, their fears can reflect real things that could actually happen to them—like getting hurt physically or a natural disaster, like a tornado or something.[1]

It’s clear that what kids fear is different than what adults fear.

This is due to the many facets of mind development. Children have an incredible imaginative capacity, can repress reason, and also exhibit the condition of innocence. This is played out when a mom is scared of the next medical bill, while her five-year-old isn’t scared of that at all, as long as the medical bill isn’t delivered by the abominable snowman.

But as Tim Lott states, in his article “Children used to be scared of the dark – now they fear failure,” fear in children is starting to look more and more like the fear of adults. A recent survey from Johns Hopkins University found that the top five fears of kids thirty years ago were of animals, being in a dark room, high places, strangers and loud noises. But currently, in the updated survey, kids are now afraid of divorce, nuclear war, cancer, pollution, and being mugged.

Further, in another poll from the UK, researchers found that some traditional fears like spiders and bugs, witches, the dark, and clowns [eww yes, clowns] are still prevalent among children. But, today the fear of being bullied, being approached by strangers and the fear of failure in school performance are major players.[2]

In a society driven by achievement in school that leads to finding a high-paying job, children’s fears are starting to look less innocent and imaginative.

And while we could spend a lot of time discussing why this is the case, we’re going to move onto a story in Mark’s Gospel that all about fear and children. Perhaps this story will give us some insights.

So here’s the deal: Jesus of Nazareth is traveling with his followers from Galilee to Capernaum. Jesus doesn’t want anyone to know this is happening, because he is afraid [yes, that’s right, I said Jesus is afraid] of how the people might react if they knew he was passing through. He didn’t want to become a king or a religious leader, or a spiritual rockstar. It wasn’t just a fear of the crowds in Northern Galilee, though. Jesus was also concerned about his small band of followers on the road with him to Capernaum. He tells them that he’s going to die and introduces also the possibility of life after death [however you want to define that]. And yet, Jesus knows that his closest friends are afraid of such a possibility. They are confused and fearful of the unknown; so they don’t ask any questions. Instead, their fear leads them to arguing. As they walked to Capernaum, they bickered over who was the best disciple. Who had the most faith? Who did the best work? Who was the most loyal?

So when they get to Capernaum, Jesus tweaks them with a question:

And…what were you discussing on the road?

Uh-oh, he heard.

And the disciples, now afraid what Jesus would think of them, stay silent. Fear is driving this whole story!

So finally, Jesus sits down with them, in somebody’s house, maybe his own. And it’s a teaching moment. His disciples still saw the world as a hierarchical structure of kings and queens, religious elites, and then all those below who struggled to survive. And so they sought to move up in the world.

But this was not what Jesus called the “kingdom” or “reign” of G-d. This “kingdom” was not top-down. The most venerated politician or religious leader was no different than the no-name beggar on the street.

Or the smallest child.

Mark’s Gospel writer gives us a rare symbolic detail to supplement the teaching. Jesus picks up a kid and says:

Those of you who receive any of these children like this one receive me. And those of you who receive me receive not me but the one who sent me.

The child is a symbol—not necessarily that the disciples should physically receive children and honor them, but that they should receive and welcome the child inside themselves.

You see, we say that we value children in society. In the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine, people said the same things. But children were property and they were cared for by women, who were also considered property. They were bought and sold. And children, for the most part, were not to speak unless spoken to; they were to be seen and not heard.

Sounds familiar.

Jesus’ teaching is significant in many ways, but here’s what I’m hearing.

First, we need to admit that we are often hypocritical when we talk about children. We say that we love them, we appreciate their cuteness, and we encourage [and sometimes pressure] people to have more babies.

And yet, so, so many children are not cared for, not loved, not mentored. Far too many children are born into households of violence, neglect, and abuse. And some children, forced from their homes in Syria, or Honduras, or West Africa, are left to starve and are turned away by governments, religious institutions, and whole countries. These children have done nothing wrong. And yet, as a society we are ignoring them.

And secondly, we need to learn to embrace the inner child in us in order to face our fears in a healthy way. There is no reason for us to lose our imaginations.

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There’s no reason for us to stop laughing at silly things, or to cease exploring or to halt our curiosity.

Though as stubborn adults we don’t want to admit it, our fears for the most part are useless. Our fears do nothing to protect us from the things we are anxious about

Aung San Suu Kyi, Noble Peace Prize winner and Burmese [Myanmar] political leader, once said: “The only real prison is fear and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”

kid5.jpegFriends, ask yourselves these questions:

Are your life stories often driven by fear?

Are your decisions based out of fear?

Do you behave in certain ways simply because you are afraid?

From time to time, we may all answer yes to these questions.
But we have an opportunity to seek and follow a simpler way, to accept that which we don’t understand or know, and not fear the unknown.

To embrace the child in each one of us is to think imaginatively like a child, to move away from fear to trust, love, and wholeness.

It is kicking up your feet on an Amsterdam bicycle, just because.

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All are invited to embrace the inner child, the child who knows that faith is not about certainty, but about wonder; not about answers, but questions.

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[1] http://kidshealth.org/PageManager.jsp?dn=KidsHealth&lic=1&article_set=21758&cat_id=145&&ps=105
KidsHealth®, © 1995- 2015 . The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth®. All rights reserved.

[2] Lott, Tim, “Children used to be scared of the dark – now they fear failure,” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/may/29/children-used-to-be-scared-of-the-dark-now-they-fear-failure

Our Own Two Hands: the Better

Luke 10:38-42    

ImageSalamanca, Spain is an amazingly beautiful city that impacts you the moment you arrive. It’s incredibly old and historic, but also quite modern and it is a city truly never sleeps. The people of Salamanca have a different rhythm to their lives which I find quite refreshing. They take time to sit and eat. Unlike our U.S. obsession with fast food, drive-thru service and to-go boxes, the people of Salamanca take their time. From 2pm to 5pm, most people go home or to a café restaurant to sit and enjoy food and drink. There is no eating at your desk or microwaving some strange concoction that you will devour in five minutes and call that lunch. They sit and eat real food.

The picture above is a a view of the famous Plaza Mayor during the day—a place full of restaurants and cafes, and always full of people.

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And after you eat, you might want to walk it off by heading down one of the beautiful streets or simply admiring the architecture.

ImageImageImageAfter 5pm, good luck finding a place to eat. Restaurants close. Until 9pm, that is. And many stay open until 2am. It’s tapas time! Yes, the awesome, unique tradition of eating small plates of delicious and fresh seafood, hams, cheese, vegetables with delicious, fresh bread and incredible wine.  

ImageImageImageTapas, and the fellowship of people simply gathering together to sit and talk, lasts well into the late hours of the night. In Salamanca, you can easily forget what time it is, for at 10pm [or later] the sun is still out.

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And as I quickly learned, children were still at play. You see, in Salamanca, it is common to see a group of kids playing soccer in the street late at night. It is common to see parents or grandparents with infants or toddlers eating tapas in the Plaza well into the night. There is a strong focus on sitting down to share food and fellowship—for all ages.

Unfortunately, there are some [mostly in the U.S. and some parts of Western Europe] who criticize the amount of time that Spaniards take to rest, eat, and fellowship. Shouldn’t they be working? Honestly, they do work—just as much as we do in the U.S., but they also stop to play.

It is a balance. 

The tale of Mary and Martha is a short story about balance, and for some, a confusing story. Martha, the diligent, hospitable, hard-working person is wrong? How? And Mary, the sister who left Martha with all the work, is better? How? It’s a story about siblings. Anyone who has a brother or sister knows how this goes. Often, parents present us siblings with choices. And the parents, quite often, may try to influence us by saying: make a better choice. That better choice ranges from eating all your vegetables and not regurgitating them and then hiding them in your napkin to saying I’m sorry to your sister rather than nah, nah, nah, nah…ppfffhhttt!

But siblings, more often than not, do not make the same choices. Jaclyn’s favorite color is green but Juliette’s is pink. Jimmy chooses to listen to a certain kind of music while his two sisters prefer something else.

In my house, my brother and sister and I were often presented with this choice: what do you want to eat tonight?

Me: chicken.

My sister: stuffed green peppers with rice.

My brother: spaghetti with no sauce.

Parents: when would you like to visit grandma and grandpa?

Me: now.

Sister: tomorrow night.

Brother: will there be spaghetti involved? With no sauce.

Guests are coming over.

What should we make them for dinner?

Which part of the house do you want to help clean?

What games should we play?

Three different answers.

That’s really what happened with Mary and Martha. Guests were on their way. So Martha chose to dedicate her time and energy to prep. Martha chose to clean, cook, and prepare for guests. Not a bad choice at all, actually. Great hospitality. Martha’s hospitality choice wasn’t the problem.

The problem was in Martha’s reaction to Mary’s different choice.

You see, Mary chose instead to sit at the feet of their guest, Jesus. Rather than cooking and cleaning, Mary chose to listen to what Jesus had to say. Now, Martha wasn’t happy with Mary’s choice. She was jealous. Martha complained. Lazy Mary. Leaving me to do all the work. Look at her. Sitting at Jesus’ feet. Who does she think she is anyway? Martha must have felt overwhelmed, stressed out, weighed down by heaviness. She certainly was not at peace and at rest as Mary was. Maybe that’s why she got mad. Mary was able to rest, to just simply sit and listen. Martha wasn’t.

Sound familiar? In the U.S., people live at a breakneck speed. It’s one activity to another activity to another. It is almost encouraged in this culture to accomplish every task on your list, and oh by the way, if you finish the tasks on your list, you better fill that extra time with something else that you should be doing! Sitting, resting, taking a break? Impossible! Lazy! 

But the story challenges this. Jesus, you see, also wanted Martha to experience rest. But Jesus understood that like many of us, Martha was caught up in a busy and “important” life. Often we claim that our work, projects, calendars, appointments, and tasks are so important. And when we see Mary so care-free, playful, curious, at rest—we resent her.

I see Mary as a child in this story. Jesus so often lifted up the example of children as a model for the adults to follow. Kids are more open, freer and less focused on the so-called important tasks.

We say: I don’t have time to play or to waste my time on such things.
Can’t you see that I have work to do?!

I’m not making Martha out to be the bad character in the story. I just think that this story is more about finding a balance.

The balance is remembering that all of us are CHILDREN of God. This helps us to focus on the better thing—what actually is important. God wants our whole selves.

God accepts us as we are.
That should give us rest.
That should give us peace.
And this rest and peace ought to inspire us to be more like children—having the attitude that the work of our hands is important, but our lives are much more impactful if the work we do is balanced by joyful and free play mixed with rest—meaning no resentment, regret, or heaviness.

I’m struck by how this story breaks stereotypes. First, Mary is a woman and her household is hosting someone, and she isn’t isolated in the kitchen. Second, she sits at the feet of a Rabbi [Jesus] and is taught. Rabbis in this time did not teach women. I find this story to be a continuation of Luke’s focus on the question: who is my neighbor? Jesus’ handling of that question turns the tables on the typical religious responses. A Samaritan is the hero and shows mercy when others don’t. A woman is the student and sits at Jesus’ feet; she does the better thing. Once again, we find Jesus calling attention to certain groups of people who are often left out or considered lesser. Samaritans, women, tax collectors, lepers, and oh yes—children.

I hear the story telling us that kids have a lot to teach us. Unfortunately, kids are often looked at as immature or not ready for big and important things. Often the work of their hands is considered a nice, cute thing, but not nearly as important as what we adults do. But that just isn’t true. I have always believed [and still do] that kids have so much to offer the world [and us]. Their ideas, perspectives, and the work and movement of their hands are essential in the world. If we don’t pay attention to them, if we do not participate with them, we lose so much and risk losing the rest we desperately need to be alive; if we don’t embrace the lives of children, we risk missing out on a blessed teaching that could change our perspectives…for the better. 

The truth is, from Jesus’ time until now, I don’t think much has changed. We still single out certain groups of people and say that they are lesser. We still say that some deserve to be taught [educated] and others do not. We still say that certain people should always fill certain roles, no matter what. We still think that people in Salamanca might be crazy, unrealistic, or perhaps not hard-working.  

And then this crazy Jesus says the opposite.

The better thing? Rest; sitting; listening.

Children? Let them come and learn. The kingdom of God belongs to them. Unless you adults receive the kingdom of God like children, you won’t enter it. Why? Because kids get it! For them, it’s not about theology or creeds or doctrines or denominations or money or traditions. Kids want to be loved and accepted. And they want to learn. They are like human sponges for love and learning. If they feel loved and accepted by people who love and serve God, then the kids feel that this God loves and accepts them, too. If loving and caring adults teach them about Jesus’ love then the kids feel that the adults care enough to share this with them. And, if the adults choose the better thing and actually listen closely to kids—look out! Good things might actually happen. Changes might occur for the better. Because kids, cared for and loved and taught—are inspired to use their hands and feet, mouths, minds, and bodies to do good things in the world.

 And yes they can and yes they will.

Often people say that cliché thing about how kids help us remember what’s really important. Well, it may be overused, but it is true. In our world, full of distractions, busyness, stress, and “important” work to do, we can easily get distracted and weighed down. We can easily neglect the moments of rest and peace offered to us. We can easily forget that we too are children. And we can easily miss opportunities for mercy-sharing, forgiveness, joy, and flat-out godly play!

Look friends, we need to be balanced. Sometimes, we need to stop that “important” work we’re doing, sit down, and listen. What we can learn is that Jesus’ burden is light and the teaching is full of mercy and blessing. 

And as children [all of us], we can recognize that kids, youth, adults—we all have hands that can bless, forgive, heal, work for good, build bridges, plant trees and gardens, clap and lift up, praise and elevate, and clasp to join the hands of others.

And this IS the better thing.

So spend time sitting and resting. Don’t worship busyness and tasks. Listen to the merciful one. Be filled and refreshed. And then, Inspired by the rest and peace and teaching offered to you, inspired by the children around us, commit to living in this way. May the work of all of our hands make a lasting, blessed impact in the world. Amen.

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