Who here is anti-children? Anyone? Anyone believe that we should not protect children? Not cherish them? On one hand, the title of the sermon today is a little laughable. After all, who is really going to be anti-child?
But yet, the numbers in our culture today are striking.
• More than 750,000 children each year in America are abused or neglected, one every 47 seconds. Forty percent of these children get no services at all after the initial investigation. Each year, approximately 800,000 children spend time in foster care. On any given night, 200,000 children are homeless — 1 in every 4 of the homeless population.
• Today, 14.7 million children in America, nearly 1 in 5, are poor, two-thirds living in working families. The burden of poverty falls disproportionately on minority children, with nearly 2 in 5 Black and 1 in 3 Latino children affected compared to less than 1 in 10 White children.
• A Black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance, a Latino boy a 1 in 6 chance and a White boy a 1 in 17 chance of going to prison in his lifetime.
In the face of these numbers, we read Jesus’ words, that anyone who would put a stumbling block in front of a child would be better off with a millstone tied to their neck and thrown into the sea. I don’t know if you have ever seen a millstone, a massive stone used to grind corn or grain into flour, but you don’t need to look at one to know that you don’t want one tied around your neck and tossed into the ocean.
So in the face of such a daunting image, what is our call? The series title and today’s sermon title are the same: Precious in God’s Sight: Answering Our Call to Protect and Cherish Every Child. It is actually a shared series with voices of faith from around the country, led by the Children’s Defense Fund, an organization founded by Marian Wright Edelman to care for the needs of our children, and the source for the statistics I just read.
So how do we do that? What is our call? In the face of such difficult statistics, it is hard to know where to start. We have established that none of us are anti-children. We have established that Jesus has commanded us to not put stumbling blocks in front of our children. But how? What does that look like?
My guess is that on this issue, we want to help, but sometimes don’t know how. We want to protect and cherish children, but don’t know for sure what that means. So perhaps this is a time to put some practical, pragmatic solutions on the table. The list I offer today is not all-inclusive, nor is it given from someone who supposes he has all the answers or even does these things himself. This list is for me as much as it is for everyone else. But this morning, I offer several practical ways that you can protect and cherish every child. Again, if it were as simple as not being anti-children, then the numbers from above would be different. But they are not. Being pro-children means making some pragmatic and practical decisions and changes.
So how can we protect and cherish every child?
One, give financially to a program that is making a difference with the poor. Again, the words of Jesus seem relevant here. Again and again, Jesus speaks to the importance of caring for the poorest among us. And those who are most impacted by poverty are the most vulnerable, including children. If we want to protect and cherish children, we must care for the poor. And one of the ways that we can do that is help to fund organizations that do just that.
Now, this is not simple. But it is critical. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, “Poor children lag behind their peers in many ways beyond income: They are less healthy, trail in emotional and intellectual development, and are less likely to graduate from high school. Poor children also are more likely to become the poor parents of the future. Every year that we keep children in poverty costs our nation half a trillion dollars in lost productivity, poorer health and increased costs of the criminal justice system.”
In other words, caring for the poor makes economic sense, moral sense, and spiritual sense. When Jesus claimed that our salvation hinged on how we took care of the least of these, perhaps it was children in poverty which held a place in his heart.
But this is where advocacy gets difficult. Because when we speak of caring for the poor, there is often a tug in the back of some of our minds that we don’t want to reward laziness or those who scam the system. We are aware that there are some who simply don’t want to work and want to live off of others’ generosity, even though such people represent only a small slice of all those in poverty. Yet it tugs at us to make sure that we are not enforcing systems of multigenerational poverty.
However, regardless of what the parents do, there is no child who deserves to grow up in poverty. I believe that we can have a conversation about when helping hurts, as in the title of a powerful book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. But when we want to teach adults a lesson at the cost of vulnerable children, we have lost our way. Punishing the poor punishes children the most. If we want to protect and cherish children, we must care for the poor.
So, when we give to organizations who advocate for the poor, we are helping children in significant ways. The Children’s Defense Fund is one. There are many others. However, do your research. Just because you get something in the mail with pictures of cute kids asking you to give to help children, it doesn’t mean that you should open up the checkbook. Research first and give to those programs that advocate and work for children in poverty in systemic ways. It is a significant way that you can make a difference.
Two, talk to someone who works with children. Unfortunately, the people who decide what we need to do about our children are often times folks who rarely spend time with children and families in crisis. Talk to, and listen to, a school teacher or counselor, someone who works with Family Promise, or one of our Head Start teachers.
Most of you know that we have a Head Start program in our church, but how many of you have taken much time to meet our teachers, to listen to stories about kids in the program, to make yourself aware of what goes on there? Our building was built around the knowledge that children need to be protected and cherished from their earliest years – when First Baptist built here 40 years ago, we created space for one of the first early childhood centers in town, because we knew then, and still know in our support for Head Start, that giving at-risk children a chance is critical to their ability to flourish long term. Again, it is the Children’s Defense Fund that states that Head Start has shown to be incredibly effective at helping more children complete higher levels of education, have higher earnings, be in better health and be in stable relationships, and be less likely to commit a crime or be incarcerated. And our teachers in our program help children and families to flourish.
So sit down and listen to them, or anyone that works with children, especially at risk children. Listening to those who actually works with children is an important way that we can cherish and protect them.
A third way that we can protect and cherish our children: volunteer! Neither Susan Pauls or Wendy Wheeler put me up to this, but one of the best programs in town for helping families and protecting children is coming into our doors within the next few hours in the form of Family Promise. The program helps create sustainable and systemic change in the lives of families in poverty, and all you need to do to is sign up on the board in the back. Or stick around for a few minutes today and help set up with set up.
Family Promise, Head Start, our school system, the Communities in Schools program – these are all organizations that can use volunteers. Of course, there will be background checks to run and paperwork to fill out. But in the long run, the work of blessing and caring for children is well worth it. It is pretty amazing to know that you are making a difference in the life of a child.
Many of you have met my friend Jason Poteet, a college friend who comes out to visit a couple of times a year. He is a counselor in an elementary school in southern Indiana, and happens to be here this weekend. So as I was writing this week, I asked him what he would say would be the best thing that we can do to protect and cherish all children, and he said simply “listen.” So many children just need someone to listen to them, someone to hear about their day or talk to them about what is going on in their lives. Becoming a volunteer can often afford you the opportunity to be that listening ear. Or even if you show up to volunteer and end up spending 6 hours in the laminating room doing busy work, then know that it is time given so that that harried third grade teacher will have time to be a focused listener, and not have to spend it laminating. Either way, you are making a difference. And you are blessing God’s children.
Number four. A fourth way to protect and cherish every child is to let them struggle. This is a good time for an important clarification. It might seem a little silly to say that children are voiceless. When we think about how much advertisers on Madison Avenue cater to and target children, how much spending power young people have compared to previous eras, how much opportunity and voice American young people are afforded, it seems a little ludicrous to say that they are voiceless. However, there is a difference between giving children what they need and giving children what they have been taught to parrot back that they want. Advocating for children does not mean spoiling them.
My daughter and I are reading through the Harry Potter series together, and there is an interesting scene in the fifth book. It is in the living room of the Dursleys, who have basically spent their entire parenting lives spoiling their biological son Dudley and abusing and neglecting their adopted son Harry. Dudley gets anything he wants. Harry is made to live in a closet and do Dudley’s chores and suffer abuse on a consistent basis. Yet, when the wise wizard Dumbledore sits down with the family in their living room, he refers to the spoiled Dudley as “neglected.” All in the room are scratching their heads to figure out how Dudley has ever been neglected, but perhaps you can see Dumbledore’s point.
Not allowing our children to face the struggles of life, protecting them from common everyday disappointments and losses, hovering so close over them that they never learn true freedom or responsibility…these are really forms of neglect. Cherishing our children does not mean spoiling them – if anything, it means the opposite. I want to clarify that protecting children is not the same as making sure that they have everything their hearts desire.
In fact, in the face of so many in our country and our world who do not have enough, cherishing ALL children means that sometimes we need to deny some children what they have been told they think they want so that others will be able to have what they need. What if those of our kids who are comfortable and free from poverty learned to volunteer at Family Promise, to give some of their allowance to Head Start, to pray for children their age stuck in poverty or homelessness?
Cherishing ALL children means that we want them to grow up physically healthy, to grow up without the ravages of poverty or abuse or incarceration, to grow up emotionally and mentally strong, and to learn to face the normal difficulties and disappointments of life in responsible and moral ways.
Levi was known in town as that kid. His mother had died when he was born and his father struggled with emotional and mental problems to the point that he was often incapacitated for days, if not weeks at a time. So Levi was often left to his own devices: getting into trouble, stealing, causing problems. Levi knew well the touch of a hand on his shoulder, dragging him away or grabbing him to lecture and berate him. And this day, Levi was at it again. Dad was nowhere to be found and Levi was alone. Hungry, he started to slip by an open air market and grab some fruit, when he felt the familiar hand on his shoulder. But this time, it was different. The hand belonged to a man whose face was so full of love and acceptance. And instead of turning him around to berate him, he picked him up and set him on a box. And to the crowds that had gathered, he spoke, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like 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.” And with a smile, the man set him down and gave him some food. And as Levi ran away, he wished that there were more adults like that in the world.