Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Lives Our Children Interrupt (finding life and joy in Christ in spite of ourselves)

Helpful background: the Episcopal tradition I'm a part of assigns passages of Scripture for each day, and we're invited to read them as a part of morning and evening prayer, either in our faith communities or at home.

So today I'm reading the daily lectionary readings, and I skip ahead to the gospel, just to see what it is. Immediate laughter ensues. It's a two-part reading, and the second part is the more famous of the scripture siblings: it's the account of the time some people bring children to Jesus, and the disciples try to stop them, which turns out to be a bad idea. Jesus calls out his dutiful disciples in the now famous words, 
Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
These words are so famous, they usually get quoted on their own; we don't always think about them in light of scripture sibling A, which is too bad for comedy's sake. But here's the full scene: 

Scripture sibling A is some Pharisees asking Jesus what he thinks about marriage and divorce. And they're probably trying to trick Jesus, but he's taking the question seriously, opening the scriptures, setting up an impromptu mini-seminar, and it's not clear that he's ready to end it when these kids show up. And every parent knows this feeling. Every parent covets the experience of even one uninterrupted sentence spoken and heard at the dinner table. OF COURSE the marriage seminar would be interrupted by children! Once Jesus started talking, it could seemingly end no other way.

Full disclosure: I'm a parent of a 7 and 5 year old. My wife and I are constantly getting interrupted, and (I won't speak for her) I am not always gracious receiving them. We're talking going on eight years of broken communication. For comments. For questions. For spills. For bodily injuries. For disturbingly accurate (and unsolicited) assessments of our weaknesses. For fart jokes and bugs. So I laugh at Mark's take on Jesus' failed marriage seminar, but importantly my laughter is empathic, not cynical. After all, and as any parent knows, it's the interruptions that make us holy. Of course, children make their parents holy not by any of the adorable things that end up as photos on Facebook walls (guilty as charged) but by exposing and then transforming the limits of what we had formerly called our self-sacrificing love. 

The presence of children, even when the prayer for those children has been a longtime coming, inevitably (and sometimes uncomfortably) reveals the control we would like to have over those whom we love. Holy, as it turns out, is less about giving off golden auras and more about learning to love more than you'd like to. Indeed, William Cavanaugh observes that commitments like marriage, the religious life, and family are (communally discerned) choices that cut off a whole range of other choices (Field Hospital, 93) and so "make it possible to achieve the options that really matter" (ibid., 91).  Such commitments require habits for their living out, where a "habit is a way of relieving us from the burden of having to make choices. When we develop good habits - Thomas Aquinas called them 'virtues' - we don't even need to spend time thinking about whether we might steal or commit adultery" (ibid.).

When Christians make room for the interruption called children, whether in the family or in the church, old habits and orientations are challenged. Where old habits and orientations are not challenged, it can be fairly asked whether a family or church has really made room for children in any meaningful sense.  Such a determination is not a condemnation, but an opportunity to invoke new habits that would overcome our natural disposition. The difficulty, writes Godly Play founder Jerome Berryman, is that
Ignoring children in the church is an unrealized defensive act. Children present a powerful challenge to what adults conceive of as spiritual maturity....We have an unspoken theological heritage of ambivalence, ambiguity, and indifference toward children that still outweighs our understanding of children as a means of grace (The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the Future).
Understanding children as a means of grace means, at least, discovering a reciprocity of spiritual guidance. As Berryman puts it,
Children require adult spiritual guidance, because they need the permission and means to develop their spirituality. Adults require children's spiritual guidance, because by being who they are, children can refresh and recenter spiritual growth in adults. Without this mutual blessing children and adults are likely to lack the dynamic wholeness and authenticity they were created to enjoy (ibid.)
In all of this, Berryman aims to cultivate the ability to "speak Christian" and, with this gift, "to make existential meaning, to find direction in life and death, and to celebrate what truly matters" (ibid.) This aim to speak the faith well calls to mind a verse from the first scripture of today's appointed readings; it is God's promise to God's people from the book of Isaiah:
And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the LORD: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children's children, says the LORD, from now on and forever.
At this point, I'm hoping at least a few of you patient readers have thoughts of your own that would bless me and the others. Would you take a stab at one or more of these questions in the comments below?

  • What does formation in your faith community look like? What are the community's goals for the formation of each person? 

  • When have you been a part of a community for which children were at the center? What did it look like?

  • What makes the inclusion of children as a) whole persons and b) occasions of spiritual guidance most difficult?

  •  When have you experienced a one-way relationship turned reciprocal? What made the turn possible? What did such a turn require of the parties involved? What did you learn you had to give?

  • What habits help you love those you don't control?

  • What else? 

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