Life. Is. Difficult.
This is one of the most enduring truths, yes? Life is difficult.
Life is difficult – in many ways it is full of stuff to endure – to ‘deal with’ – from broken friendships, to loneliness, to sickness, to grieving family members, to unemployment, to financial stress. And really, sometimes just the blunt reality of there not being enough hours in a day for all the things that must be done – let alone the things we want to do is difficult.
Life is difficult.
We know this. We live this.
And yet, it is also one of the greatest, deepest truths we prefer to conceal as much as possible.
I’d like to start this morning with some questions. I’d like to start by naming what I’d like us to wrestle with together.
Although we know life is difficult, what are we teaching our children?
Are we teaching them this truth?
Are we teaching them the grace found in the midst of this truth?
Are we teaching them to wrestle with life’s difficulties?
Today is Children’s Sabbath. For 22 years, the Children’s Defense Fund has sponsored Children’s Sabbath Celebrations, as “a way for faith communities to celebrate children as sacred gifts of the Divine, and provides the opportunity for houses of worship to renew and live out their moral responsibility to care, protect and advocate for all children.” The Celebration is truly interfaith, “supported by Catholic Charities U.S.A., the Islamic Society of North America, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., the National Assembly of Bahá’ís in the U.S., the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and more than 200 other religious organizations and denominations.” This Sabbath day is a call to remember the biblical command to care for and protect the least of these among us – in this case, the youngest and most vulnerable – children.
The theme that the Children’s Defense Fund coordinators have chosen for this year’s Children’s Sabbath is gun violence. We know that we live in a culture marked by violence and revenge. We need to be willing to talk about our own infatuation with and dependence on weapons and warfare. Violence is woven into the fabric of our society. And we must tell the truth about the impossibility of squaring the Gospel’s call to peacemaking and nonviolence with our own default posture of calls for war and retribution.
But. That’s not what I want to spend my time today talking about. It is still worth addressing, but, let’s be honest, violent crime in Lawrence, Kansas, is not exactly our primary battleground – excuse the word choice. Though, to be sure, matters of gun violence are worth addressing – and we will get there.
What I want to wrestle with together this morning is the call to protect our children. I want to spend some time asking what it really means to protect our children. We know well the call to protect – as parents, as mentors, as teachers, as a community of faith. We understand that this is something we are commanded to do, and something we want to do.
And yet, what we often confuse with protection of our children is no protection at all. In truth, if many of us tend toward anything, we tend toward overprotection. I want to wrestle with the idea that overprotection really may not protect our children at all.
We often understand the call – the motivation – the desire to protect our children as a call to remove all hardship, struggle, or pain from their lives.
And yet – that is not all that helpful is it? Is it really helpful to them in the long fun? Even in the short run?
There’s a Jewish teaching, from the Talmud, that says, “A father is obligated to teach his child to swim.” We are not entrusted with children to keep them close, keep them from pain and struggle – because that deprives them of life. But rather, we are entrusted with children in order to raise adults.
Our job is to raise and nurture children that they might actually leave us. At least, in our Western idea of child-rearing we believe this to be true. Theologically speaking, we certainly ought to view nurturing, raising children – and not just as parents, but as mentors, extended family, the faith community – as guiding children to become mature, functioning, contributing members of their families and communities. We want to help them, guide them, nurture them, shape them with a faith that will not be shaken when inevitable hardship and tragedy strike. We want them to be able to work through and live with pain and grief without losing or leaving their faith behind.
Think about how much we deprive children when we think it is our job to get them to the ‘other side’ – to adulthood – smoothly, without bumps. Especially when we know the reality that living without bumps is not feasible. We know from our own lives that it is impossible to avoid bumps, hardships, struggle.
And, if we are honest, we know that out of those bumps, hardships, struggles, we have become the people we are. This is not to gloss over grief and disappointment and darkness – but it is to acknowledge the struggle. We want to protect our children so much we desire to take these things away – as though we could actually do so – as though it were appropriate to do so even if we could.
Think about how this works even in seemingly innocuous ways: when a child’s parents seek out special treatment – questioning teachers instead of encouraging children – they give them unrealistic expectations of the world. When we don’t talk about death, or when we seek to shield them from illness and suffering, or even disappointment or failure, we subtly teach them that these things are anomalies rather than part of what it means to be finite beings in a finite world.
I grew up with some unrealistic expectations of the world. I was a smart kid – a bookish kid – successful at doing school. And part of doing school well was having the kind of parents who didn’t mind contacting my teachers to clarify or advocate on my behalf.
Sounds innocent enough, right? I maintain that my parents didn’t badger my teachers. Even though my parents were decidedly not helicopter parents, I had to deal with the unintended consequences of some unrealistic expectations when I left home for college. I remember feeling overwhelmed and dealing with the unfairness of collegiate academic life, (meaning I was getting B’s), and calling home to talk to my dad about it. Or probably more accurately whine to my dad about it.
When he not only didn’t whine alongside me, he also didn’t offer to call up my professor to, um, remedy the situation; I couldn’t believe it. It was my situation to deal with – and if I couldn’t resolve it with my professor, dealing with it would mean dealing with the fact that sometimes – maybe even often – life would not work out to my distinct advantage.
In some ways this is a harmless example – but it speaks to the disadvantages we pass along when we jump in to fix things, or our version of protection is to remove all risk, hardship, or pain from our child’s life. In reality what we do when we do so is to deprive our children. We deprive them of the opportunities to mature, to develop into resilient, self-reliant adults, and to develop their own strength, maturity and wisdom.
Where does this impulse come from?
The other side of over protection is, of course, fear. And our fears are worked out in constant worry. And aren’t we awfully creative and loyal in our worrying? Our children catch onto this. Our children are keenly perceptive, aware, and susceptible to our fears. Worrying begets worrying, which ultimately communicates to our children that the world is an overwhelming, threatening and an inhospitable place.
We have to tell the truth.
We have to confront our fears.
When we overprotect our children we enslave them not only to their fears, but we hand down our fears.
One of the primary ways we can start to reframe our ideas of protection (as opposed to overprotection) is to start telling the truth.
We are often afraid of the truth – of the reality – that our children will experience pain, that the most vulnerable among us will experience hardships. We fear that the pain – physical, emotional, social – that we have endured, they will also endure.
We must tell the truth. We must tell the truth that life is difficult and that life is not easy and that as much goodness as we experience, we know that pain and struggle is also part of the journey. We should be honest about the reality of evil in our world: that it is pervasive, and none of us are exempt from its reach.
The ways we try to shield our children are rooted in fear. And the flip side of fear is freedom. Fear is not Gospel. Freedom is.
The Gospel truth is that fear has no place in a life lived in the reality of Christ’s love and grace.
Scripture tells us that perfect love casts out all fear.
Scripture tells us that Jesus is the truth.
Scripture tells us the truth will set us free.
Throughout Scripture we hear the voice of God – or voices who speak on behalf of God – telling us, commanding us, shouting at us to not be afraid. Fear Not.
The angel didn’t ask Mary why she was afraid. The angel simply said: Do not be afraid.
The word of the Lord came to Abram. The Lord didn’t tell him there was no reason to fear. Rather, Abram heard God say, “Do not be afraid Abram, I am your shield.”
When Peter, James and John followed Jesus up the mountain and saw him transfigured, when they fell to the ground, Jesus didn’t turn to them, laugh and ask them why they were afraid. He simply bent down and said “Get up and do not be afraid.”
No one ever says there will be no reason to fear. God never promises that perfect love casts out all pain. God does promise that perfect love casts out all fear.
Our choice is a choice between fear and freedom.
And it is a choice that begins in telling the truth.
We protect our children when we give them the grace and permission, the information and the courage to be set free.
When we tell the truth, we must acknowledge the tough stuff of life. Unless we let our children venture, explore, and learn about the world, they will lack the opportunity “to learn to master [the world] and find their places” in it.
If we truly believe the gospel claim that the truth will set us free, then we must also begin to tell the truth – which means we must also confront, name and claim our shackles. We must confront the question – from what do we need to be set free?
And yet – casting out our fear – that’s some scary stuff, isn’t it?
It takes vulnerability. It takes a greater risk than we feel we are capable of taking.
Are we willing to admit that we cannot fix everything? Are we willing to look our children in the face – as parents, as mentors, as teachers, as a faith community – and tell them the hard truth that life is difficult? Are we willing to not be able to take away their pain?
Part of what makes this so difficult – what makes this kind of vulnerability so hard is that it takes a willingness to say, “I don’t know.” (One of the most powerful, and empowering, lessons I ever learned as an educator is the freedom in being willing to answer a student’s question with “I don’t know.” That answer acknowledges the reality that I may know a lot – and I probably know more than my students – but I don’t know everything. I cannot answer all their questions. And, really, even if I could, should I? Shouldn’t my goal as a teacher be to empower them to seek out their own answers?)
This vulnerability also takes a willingness to endure and sit by your child in pain. There’s another Jewish principle, tzar gidul banim – which means “the pain of raising children.” This principle is twofold – it is of course the pain we feel of raising children and our own struggles, but it also points toward their own pain – because without it they cannot grow strong. Just as we have become who we are through our pain and struggle (in addition to our overcoming and our joys). “Having the courage not to pamper and overprotect your child means that sometimes she will be uncomfortable, unhappy, or even in peril, but that you are willing to take a chance because of your commitment to her growth and development.”
We are called then, to do the tough and vulnerable work of telling the truth – the whole truth – about the reality of pain and struggle in life.
And we are also called to proclaim hope in the midst of the tough stuff. We are called to the work of transformation. We are an Easter people – we are called to continue to proclaim the hope and reality of redemption and resurrection – even in the midst of a world full of evidence to the contrary.
To be sure, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. But this doesn’t mean ignoring or glossing over the painful reality of Good Friday. We are a people who live in communion with a God of suffering love. We cannot always make the suffering go away or keep those we love from suffering. We, along with the very presence of God – as creator, redeemer and sustainer – can be present in the midst of suffering, refusing to run away. We can suffer alongside, just as Christ did.
A few years ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine – who was a minister in Washington, DC, at the time. You know those conversations where someone says something – just a fragment of a thought, perhaps not even all that well thought-out, and it sticks with you, haunts you almost?
She said something like that to me; we were talking about some of the challenges of ministry in her context, and she paused, and looked at me, and said, “You know sometimes I don’t know that I believe in God, but I do know that I can look people in the face and offer them hope. And that’s enough.” This haunted me in a good way – a way that helped me form my call.
I can tell the truth.
And sometimes that truth is honest about the difficulty in feeling certain about intellectual claims about belief. But that truth is also the powerful truth of an eternal hope. The truth that offers hope in a God of grace and a God of love.
Here’s where we return to the topic of gun violence – as the Children’s Defense Fund would have us do. The text I read from today, from Micah is a beautiful image of peacemaking. More so than that it is a passage about transformation – about turning our swords into plowshares, transforming our spears into pruning hooks. This isn’t just about putting down our weapons, but it is about transforming them. This is about transforming our desire for destruction, and transforming that into new life – into instruments used to till, cultivate, and care for the earth.
We cannot transform these things without acknowledging first the existence and power of the swords and spears in the first place. We find and transform the tools to grow and build and cultivate out of the reality of violence and warfare.
Our call – in the face of our fears, in the face of our desire to take away all hardship, to make the world as pain-free as possible for our children, is to look those fears full on in the face and transform them into hope.
We don’t make evil and pain go away by pretending it doesn’t exist. Rather, we proclaim hope in the face of fear, we proclaim the promise of perfect love that doesn’t tell us there’s no reason to fear, but proclaims an end to fear’s power over us.
Our call is to protect our children by empowering them. And we do this in the spirit of the Gospel when we pass along not fear, worry and anxiety, but hope, redemption and love.