Pastoral ponderings . . .
It’s the month when people love to “get their fright on.” Getting a good scare is big business these days! When people are really afraid, when they're really uncertain of their future, it's human nature to want someone to tell them what to do. Fear can drive us to elect, appoint, or anoint authoritarian leaders: The Big Boss who's going to set everything straight, and make it all, all right again.
When we're afraid, all reason goes out the window. We want action, not talk. We want quick solutions. We don't think there's time for anything else. Do something. Fix it! And we anoint a monarch to lead us.
Maybe that's what the disciples were doing when they argued among themselves about who was the greatest. Freaked out and preparing for the worst. Who's going to be in charge if Jesus dies? Every time I think of this question now, I think of Secty of State Alexander Haig, a former general in the armed forces, grabbing the podium in the press conference madness that immediately followed the assassination attempt on Pres. Reagan. "I'm in charge!" he famously said.
Jesus asked his clueless, freaked out followers what they were arguing about, and when he heard, he did the most subversive thing he could: he found the most powerless member of society at the time, and said, in effect, “here's your leader!”
In Isaiah's famous prophetic vision of God’s future where he sees the Lion laying down with the Lamb, and all people living together in God's peaceful and harmonious reign, do you remember who's leading the way? A child. "And a little child shall lead them." Children in Jesus’ time had absolutely no rights or status whatsoever. They were as much the household property as their mothers, the livestock, and whatever slaves may have been in the residence. It was brutal. And for male children, status had all to do with birth order. Remember the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau? The oldest son had all the rights and privileges, simply because he was next in line. It's hard for us to imagine a society that would have so little respect for the most dependent and helpless.
And Jesus brings forward a child in that moment when the disciples want nothing but a New Big Boss, and says, "this is who is in charge." This is your great leader.
Now I must tell you that I don't take this literally! What happens to a classroom when the children are in charge? Chaos! Robin Eskridge might tell us that one of the first principles of teaching is "never let them see you sweat." An elementary or pre-school classroom is run by the benevolent, wise, loving, patient, and kind teachers, not the kids!
Parents remind their kids over and over that "this is not a democracy." Did you ever hear that growing up? It’s the only way we’ve found to maintain our own sanity, in our own family!
When Soren was in his terrible two's, (and three's, and four's!) I found great comfort in the gentle humor of his daycare teachers who would laugh knowingly when I'd tell them "I don't negotiate with terrorists" as I did my best to wrangle the tantrum in front of me at the end of the day. I learned a lot from the incredibly wise, patient, and loving daycare providers at the YWCA downtown. We used to absolutely despair of ourselves as parents when we'd hear how mindful and obedient they were during the day, but then experience the absolute worst melt-down: screaming, resistant, and down-right mean behavior once they'd get out of the classroom and into the car. We were sure we were failures. Until the wise and benevolent teachers assured us that the reason their behavior could be so different between the classroom and our home was because "They know you won't abandon them if they didn't respond as you want them to." "They know they are in the ‘unconditional love zone’ of your family, and their own home." Not so at pre-school! Something's different here! Survival depends on staying with the pack! Better get it together, and stay in line! At least that's what they think is going on. Of course they were as safe as they would be with us….but they didn’t know any better. Which worked great for the YWCA! Not so much for us.
Jesus embraces a child in his arms and sets them before his arguing disciples: "This is who leads you." How does that work? The confused and freaked out disciples are probably even more confused right now! It doesn't make sense today either! At least not the way we look at things, even a couple thousand years later. We still think we need some kind of dictator to lead, someone to tell us what to do. Especially in the most powerful countries on earth! The ones with enough power to destroy the planet. “Give us our Strong Man, and we'll never have to be afraid again.” I think Jesus says that's not the kind of world he wants to see. I think he's saying that to know what the kind of world looks like that he's really about, we would put every child on Earth first and foremost, before anything else we do either as individuals or as the collective society.
Being the beloved community of God was what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr taught us in so many ways, especially in the last year of his life during his “Poor People’s March on Washington.” It means putting the needs of the weakest, most vulnerable, and powerless among us, first and foremost. "The true measure of a society, what truly makes it great, can be found in how it treats the most vulnerable in it."
Jesus reminds us that the most vulnerable, like all children, are the most powerless. They’re the ones who can't speak for themselves. The ones who depend upon others the most. The ones who can’t support themselves yet.
Today we like to hear stories of individual greatness that prove a different argument. Stories of those who have received their financial wealth by any means necessary. Those who appear the least dependent on anybody else. “The Masters of the Universe”, as they were once nick-named on Wall Street. The ones who don’t appear to need or want government help to support themselves and their families. That measure of greatness is as alive and well today as it was in human society two thousand years ago.
And yet we still have the holy words of Jesus spoken so long ago, very much alive and relevant and meaningful for us, I think, as never before, because two thousand years ago, humanity had not yet developed the technological ability to undermine its own well-being, or the future of our planet, as we do today. We now even have the technology to take control of our own evolution. No more need for natural selection. No more need for the Creator's wisdom that set all this in motion to begin with. We now have the potential ourselves. We can enhance, we can guide, we can re-design the human species if we choose to do so. What could possibly go wrong?
Talk about greatness. Talk about power! Pretty scary stuff, but stuff I think we need to be aware of. Things we should keep in mind. Things maybe Jesus was trying to bring up to us, thousands of years ago.
Everything seems so overwhelming today. Future Shock is here. We’re using up the planet's resources at an exponential rate, as we continue to follow the old measures of greatness. But I see the words of Jesus subverting that power structure, that paradigm of greatness, that always seems to tempt us in the ballot box, and in our own individual priorities. But I also think the good news is that God is calling us into a new future of God's own making, because God isn't abandoning the children of the Earth, or the Earth herself. God spoke a new word of hope, of liberation, of renewal, in the empty tomb of Easter. And when we trust that good news, the promise of God With Us no matter what, that washed over us in baptism when many of us were too young, too tiny and helpless to understand; when we trust in God's way, laid out for us in the Way of Jesus and his Cross, we are living that new future of God's making Right Now. We are anticipating the future where the children's needs lead us, direct our decisions, re-prioritize every measure of greatness that led us this far down a wrong path. I'm blessed to have Fridays as my day off. I will confess that it's hard to work weekends. My work week starts on Sundays you know! That can often put my family at odds with all the plans and agendas of our friends and their families: the parties, camping trips, birthday parties, etc. But on the other hand, I'm blessed to have Fridays off.
Did you know that all kids in the Salt Lake School District are dismissed early on Fridays? They go home at 1:00pm. That schedule assumes the “stay at home parent model.” Not surprising here in Utah, right? It's a not so subtle nod to the old days when Dad was the bread-winner and Mom was the home-maker. LDS culture idolizes that model. But most of us know it takes two incomes any more, to make it.
But, I have Fridays off! And I can pick up Soren and Signe at 1pm. I get to let them guide the agenda of the afternoon. And more often than not, it's really rewarding for me because I know that having someone put them first, at least once in a while, is one of the best things I can do as a dad. So I thank you for the gift of Fridays off. Fridays I get to try out Jesus' measure of greatness; what it means to put kids first as a dad. It's the way of the cross again. It's the way of finding meaning by letting the most powerless and vulnerable lead the agenda for once.
We've let the other paradigm of greatness lead us often into ways that are anything but healthy for our children's futures. What might happen if we trusted the good news that putting children first is the way to live in the reign of God right now? What kind of change might we see? What kind of world might start to emerge? Why not find out?