“How Are the Children?” – Mark W. Harris
May 19, 2019 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words – “Beyond Borders by Rick Hoyt
Because we are always going forth from somewhere
Going from our homes, our childhoods
Going from our cities and countries
Going from innocence to experience to enlightenment
Going into mystery and questions
Going into the desert.
Getting to the other side.
Leave behind the comfort and community of one place
Head into the anxiety and loneliness of another.
Carry with you the love and laughter of this place
And let it light your way
Carry with you the wisdom you learned
and the good memories
May they give you strength for your journey
And when you have been away long enough, far enough,
Done what you’d set off to do
Been there so long
That place too, starts to feel like home
Come back to the one, universal
Everywhere and every when and everyone’s inclusive home,
This beloved community of all creation
That you can never really leave.
Reading – “And How Are the Children?” by Patrick T. O’Neill
Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors: “Kasserian Ingera,” one would always say to another. It means, “And how are the children?”
It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children’s well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, “All the children are well.” Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. That Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. “All the children are well” means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their young.
I wonder how it might affect our consciousness of our own children’s welfare if in our culture we took to greeting each other with this daily question: “And how are the children?” I wonder if we heard that question and passed it along to each other a dozen times a day, if it would begin to make a difference in the reality of how children are thought of or cared about in our own country.
I wonder if every adult among us, parent and non-parent alike, felt an equal weight for the daily care and protection of all the children in our community, in our town, in our state, in our country… I wonder if we could truly say without any hesitation, “The children are well, yes, all the children are well.”
What would it be like… if the minister began every worship service by answering the question, “And how are the children?” If every town leader had to answer the question at the beginning of every meeting: “And how are the children? Are they all well?” Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear their answers? What would it be like? I wonder…
What if we took to greeting each other with this daily question: “And how are the children?”
Let me hear you repeat, And how are the children? 2019 marks the fortieth year of parenthood for me. My son Joel was born in June 1979, and I have had children around me ever since. I’ve had babies that spent time in neo natal intensive care units, babies that didn’t sleep, babies with the cutest smiles, and babies with lots of hair. I’ve had toddlers who ran down the street naked, and toddlers who loved to listen to picture books. I’ve had toddlers who joined me in search of Thomas the Tank Engine, and shared my love of dinosaurs, too. I’ve had young boys who played baseball and soccer, and I was their coach. I’ve had boys who played basketball, and one who still does, and I was their coach, but not anymore. I’ve had boys who rode bicycles and ran away from home. I’ve had boys who struggled with school and keeping steady in body and mind. I’ve only had boys, four of them to be exact, but now a granddaughter who is about to turn five, and will go to kindergarten. It begins again. Some of us remember how hard it was and is to grow up. I hated how mean siblings could be (sometimes). I hated how mean teachers could be. (sometimes). I hated myself sometimes, too, for being fat and awkward. Being a kid isn’t easy. Never was, and never is. But sometimes siblings reunite. And sometimes teachers are amazing – just ask my college graduate son, and even a few of my students. And sometimes we can say of ourselves, “I’ve done good.”.
I have three more sermons to write for you – one will be on saying goodbye, one on dealing with ghosts real and imagined, and today’s sermon on children in our lives and in our church, and in our world. We were all children once, and I have spent all of my adult life living with children. In the congregations I have served I have always hoped that children would be front and center in the life of the church. I wanted children to be welcome in the sanctuary, and welcome at events. I am proud to report that in a time when church school enrollments are dropping across the nation, we have a vibrant program. I love that we have mentoring programs where we build relationships between children and adults. I love that children are seen and heard. I love that we have meaningful programs, and we have children bringing their parents to church rather than the other way around. I love that kids think of this as a place where they can be comfortable, a home where they experience a partnership with the building and the people. They think this is theirs, they own it, and that is good in this day and age when we long for community and a sense of place.
In a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review, there is a review of a new biography of Martin Buber. Buber’s theology always intrigued me, and it was offered as a course at my seminary, and is in fact the only course I took that centered on one theologian. I think he was especially appealing to UUs, because as a Jewish thinker, we did not have to deal with any of the typical Christology around Jesus and salvation that plagues so much of theology. Buber’s central premise was that we find God or the holy through I/Thou relationships. Rather than treating people like objects or things in I/it relationships, we would encounter others in a deeply meaningful and personal way, not out for what we could get from others. The idea of the class, being Berkeley and California, was that we would replicate those relationships in class. Someone once said to me “you look at people as though you really want to get to know them. That could be dangerous.” And I said, “I thought that was what we were supposed to do.” Sadly, it is not what we do with adults or children most of the time. Sometimes at parties or social events, people look past you to see who else is in the room. The message is clearly I don’t want to look at you because you are not worthy of my time or attention. I think many people feel that way about children. We may think they are noisy little brats, and I’ll talk to them when they grow up. So we look past them or avoid them. We talk down to children. We don’t listen to children. We don’t respect children. I am not arguing that they should run the home or the church. Adults need to be in charge, and offer direction, but we also need to engage with our children listen to and respect them, and not disapprove of them in one way or another.
I mentioned Buber because the review talks about how his mother abandoned the family when she ran off with a Russian army officer, when Buber was only three. It says the author does not do too much psychological speculating, but does offer that Buber later developed a theology that emphasized the maternal element in spiritual life. He had to go live with his grandparents for a time, was home schooled, and then when his father remarried, he returned home. So he was abandoned and shuffled around a bit. It is often said that children are resilient, but that may be wishful thinking when they really are suffering. We all react to the experiences we have, even as adults. I was a single parent to my son Joel , and we moved around quite a bit. It was a life where I ended up devoted to him for many years. Perhaps we compensate by not moving or trying to provide a more stable home. Although then and now, one thing has not changed, we must do everything we can to help children adjust to the difficult challenges they encounter in life. Perhaps this helped Buber later in life when he had to flee the persecution of Nazi Germany. While he rejected Jewish orthodoxy, he never rejected how important it is to nurture inner spiritual resources to brave the collapse of the world. He became a lifelong dissenter who, after a teenage rebellion was open to dialogue with all kinds of spiritual traditions. He knew what he had lost as child, and but also knew he needed to marshal strength from what he had lost.
What if we took to greeting each other with this daily question: “And how are the children?”
I think it is important to consider how our children have to deal with some of the trauma of childhood. Think of what some children have endured or suffered. I gained a reinvigorated perspective on this when I visited the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington DC recently. There among the exhibits were shards of stained glass from the 16thStreet Baptist Church in Birmingham which was blown up by KKK members with dynamite causing the deaths of four black girls, ages 11-14, who were getting ready for Sunday School. Then we lined up to see an exhibit about Emmett Till, the 14 year old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. The exhibit culminated in viewing the casket he was first buried in, that his mother decided should be open at the funeral, so all the world could see how badly he was beaten. How can any of us forget Ruby Bridges, who became the first black child to integrate a white school in 1960. Bridges and her mother were driven to her new school in New Orleans; It was then determined that she would enter the school with two marshals in front of her and two behind. A mob of white protesters greeted Bridges outside the school, yelling profanities and throwing objects. Rather than being taken directly to a classroom, she was escorted to the principal’s office, and there she remained for the rest of the day. Finally, one teacher volunteered to have her as the only student in the classroom. Can you imagine being a six year old and having to endure those screaming taunts?
I think I always react most strongly when it is a news item about a child. Perhaps we relate childhood to innocence, and we want them to have every chance at life, and not be sullied by what we have seen or learned as adults of cruelty and inhumanity. We want our children to have fun. We want our children to learn about the beauty and wonders of life, and not feel only its pain. So when it comes to a kid, we cry out sooner, why did they have to endure this? Why did they have to be snatched from their parents? Why did they have to be shot at, and threatened with death or injury? Adults of my generation think back upon atomic bomb drills. It was the 1950’s and a Red scare embodied by Nikita Krushchev banging on a table with his shoe threatening, “I will bury you,” comes back to mind. This caused even my rural elementary school to have bomb drills, where we huddled under our desks in anticipation of an attack. Now this fear is pervasive in another way. Our school children today endure active shooter drills, just as we have discussed as a possibility at First Parish when we held our police training. Ever since Columbine, we have witnessed one school shooting after another, such as the recent one in Colorado, and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in Florida last year, with none more painful for observers than Sandy Hook.
What if we took to greeting each other with this daily question: “And how are the children?”
A recent news item reported that 77 per cent of children who witness a school shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder.. PTSD brings pervasive anxiety, nightmares and emotional detachment among other symptoms. The now classic 1991 book, There Are No Children Here, chronicles the lives of two boys growing up in the Chicago housing projects. More recently An American Summerrelates the story of Pharoah who witnessed a shooting two decades ago in Chicago, but is still traumatized. He says , after hyperventilating, “It’s like I’m there,” crouching down to take cover. The author writes, “the violence is in his bones.” This kind of lasting anxiety is troubling. We all met people who suffered from similar kinds of violence last Sunday on the walk for peace. In the schools, students these days learn that they must cope with facing these fears. We can work to limit access to guns, and we can work to educate on how to protect ourselves and our loved ones, but society will never return to what we once considered normal and peaceful. Despite the dangers around us, we can still affirm that life is good, and we can do everything we can to support, affirm and protect the children who live with us and among us.
We also have the experience of knowing that there were thousands of migrant children who were separated from their parents at the border with Mexico, and in the end the government was not even sure how many kids were involved or where they were, and even used the kids as bait to lure the parents into custody. How would that make you feel as a parent, not knowing where they were? The images of children locked in cages and separated from theirfamilies was disheartening. Children, along with their families were mostly fleeing violence in their countries. Who would flee a homeland if it were safe and secure and provided basic necessities – all things that these children lack, but deserve. In the novel The Veins of the Ocean, Patricia Engel writes: I can’t start a new life when my life is still back there. Everybody thinkings everybody want to leave – but who would want to leave their home, their family, everything they love? We leave because we have to . . . This is what family does. What love does. It chains us together.” What if all of our political representatives were to echo the words we heard in our reading – And, how are the children? We must end the moral outrage of locking up children who are traveling with their families fleeing danger, who face gun violence, who face systemic racism. Elizabeth Nguyen writes, “ We have no crisis at our border. But we do have a crisis of our borders. The crisis is believing that there is a border between who is human and worthy of dignity and who is not.”
And what of the parents in our midst? Navigating the world of child-rearing is a difficult task these days. Every age presents new challenges for children, and for those of us who are parents. I ask how can I help my children make choices about jobs and careers, managing money and relationships? They have had difficult decisions all along as they grew up, worrying about making friends, and school work, social pressures, and issues of sexuality. What is the right thing to do? How can they get help? Every year brings new technology, trends and transitions for our children, and every day involves new feelings and fears. As a parent, you want to help them through it all in the best way possible. It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child, and that is certainly one way that a church community can be helpful. Parents have difficult weeks where they are trying to work, maintain a household, relate to their children and help them cope with all the issues that confront them. The burdens for immigrant families, those who suffer from prejudice, and fear violence are that much more severe. All these challenges show how much we need one another to offer support and advice, to offer affirmation to each parent and each child who must meet these challenges of living. Here we may worry about such things as noise in the sanctuary, or behavior downstairs, but we must take up those issues in a positive spirit. Isn’t it great that we have children among us who offer us joy and energy and hope for the future? Isn’t it great that we have many families who are willing to make this into a village where they will not judge or condemn another child or parent but will act to help with the care of all our children, so that no one is isolated and alone when it comes to the challenges of parenting?
On Friday morning I received an updated DNA report from Ancestry.com. It didn’t tell me very much new information about myself. I am about as much a WASP as you can get, and a high percentage of early Puritan ancestors, too, along with some French and Canadian. One thing the DNA report reminded me of is that we are the results of the work of many generations and many people in many places. I owe my existence to all these others who have raised and nurtured and cared for our mothers and fathers who preceded us. It also reminds me that our parents were not solely responsible for raising us. They had parents, and aunts and uncles, they had teachers and neighbors, they had siblings and friends, all part of a community that raised us up. We were created by many generations, and they all gave us the gift of life. We are grateful for whatever genetic legacy we have because it is the life stream in our blood. It is what animates us and holds us among the living. My parents gave this to me, and also gave me much care in providing a home.
There are also many among us who have preserved and passed on an amazing cultural heritage. We have the arts and humanities, history and science, all the knowledge of life in this universe that helps us grow, and the marvelous bio systems that keep all of life breathing and flourishing. Among those people who passed on life’s knowledge, were those who nourished us with skills and truth, with meaning and purpose, who helped us learn to run and jump, and fed us and clothed us, who nourished our souls and minds, my teachers and truth tellers, and yours, too. I think, too of those who made a home, not only for me, but for you and everyone in this community, this town, this state, this nation, this world, all those who labored to make homes for their children in the far corners of Asia, and Europe and Africa, and South America, too. Those immigrants that love their families, and do their best to raise their children, and still give us nurturing homes. Those homes where they love their children, and want them to grow up to care for their own children, and all the children who are part of homes and families both near and far. And so we praise all these children and all these families, and we pray that we will have the strength and courage to protect and nurture all children who we come to know, and that we would hand down a legacy of care and concern for all children. We would ask over and over again, And how Are the Children? Not merely our own, but all the children of the world, and we would again and again ask, What if we took to greeting each other with this daily question: “Andhow are the children?”Andhow are the children?
Closing Words – from Kendyl Gibbons
Who are these children, that we are mindful of them?
They are our present delight. By them we are reminded of life’s small joys and wisdoms.
They are the heirs of the work that we have done and are doing,
the next generation unto whom the torch of our tradition shall pass from our hands.
They shall build upon the foundations that we lay.
They are the yet unwritten chapter in the story of our faith.
This being the case, what do we promise unto them, and to their parents?
We pledge them our love and support, a listening ear and a helping hand in times of trial.
We pledge them a community of open mindedness, a place where their beliefs, their doubts, and their questions are received with gentleness and respect.
We pledge them challenge, skepticism of the too easy answer, and a pointing to the ever-open road.
We pledge them roots: a tradition to pass on to their own children, a place to come home to.