Some of you have heard my incessant grumbling over the last couple of weeks that, “I need to get my hair cut.” You have given me good advice about the various places in town where I could receive a decent haircut. Even though three weeks ago I could have had it done, I’ve put it off. And off. And off.
And I wonder how commonly and naturally this condition plagues us, in general, on many levels: A project at home we know is good and important but we’re distracted and too busy with our regular routines to get it done; When we put off reaching out to so-and-so but never get around to it; When we put off sending that “thank you” card or making that phone call; When we put off engaging a new and healthy discipline — prayer, exercise, a regular visit to volunteer at the local shelter or food bank; etc. Whatever it is, procrastinating seems to be a universal problem.
What is the result? Well, I’ve found one of my initial emotional reactions is guilt. I beat myself up over the delay. And should I recommit myself to the task, often fear is the motivation. Because I remind myself of the consequences — and I don’t want to go there.
Just consider for a moment the weighty topic of the end times or the final judgment. There’s nothing like striking fear in our hearts to push us to try harder, right? Indeed, this is the final characteristic of the cycle: First guilt, with underlying fear, motivating us to try even harder.
But where does that leave us? Back at the beginning, because do we ever get done all that we want to get done? Do we ever achieve the goals of the perfect kind of world we are trying so hard to create for ourselves and for others? Someone once admonished me for my over-zealousness: “Remember, Martin, your inbox will still be full on the day you die.” Is just “try harder” the solution?
What to do, then, when we find ourselves mired in the mud, stuck in the rut, of despair and disillusionment?
I heard the story this week of an Anglican priest’s young child who declared that he didn’t want anymore to be a sheep in the church’s Christmas pageant. Even though the Sunday School teacher had slotted him to be a sheep, he protested.
“Why don’t you want to be a sheep, little darling?” the teacher asked. “The shepherd will take care of the sheep, and we are all like sheep.”
“I want to be a shepherd,” declared the young boy. Adamant.
“Why is that?”
“Because the shepherds were the only ones who heard the angels sing.”
What that child exposed was truth and wisdom that I hope the Sunday School teacher heard. The shepherds were indeed the only ones who heard the angels sing. And they were the first evangelists in Christianity — those lowly shepherds. They got it right.
Do we hear the angels sing? Do we listen to our children? Do we pay attention to the lowly in our society? Maybe we should. They often get it right.
In ancient times — out of which the bible was written, and famous passages of Jesus welcoming the children into his arms were told — adults considered children no more than chattel. They were economic units, bred and raised and tolerated only so they could become useful when they grew up.
Stoic philosophers, who influenced the thinking of many in Jesus’ day, taught that in children under seven years of age, reason was not active. So, you could treat them like young animals to be trained, rather than like human beings to be guided in a learning process.
Consequently, adults would not listen to or learn from children. Animal trainers do not look for significant insights from those they train. They give commands, observe behaviour, and hand out rewards or punishment (see pages 21ff in Catherine Stonehouse & Scottie May, “Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey”, Baker Academic, Michigan, 2010).
Notice in the Gospel reading today how even from the original Greek ‘the child’ is translated into an inhumane “it”, not once but twice in verse 36 (Mark 9): “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms…” In the ancient world you gained social capital as you got older. Kids weren’t even cute; they were a drain on the family budget.
Jesus begins his ministry by declaring that the Reign of Christ has come (Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17). And then he astonishes everyone when he says that to enter God’s kingdom we need to become as children.
Talk about turning the tables on society and cultural norms! Suddenly the poor and weak and the vulnerable have something to say. And the rich and powerful need to listen to the poor! To the children! Because children are not marginal members of the kingdom of God, just tagging along with their parents, waiting to grow up and become real members. No, children are models in the kingdom of God, showing adults how to enter.
In a famous hymn we sing, “Lord, listen to your children praying.” Perhaps the Lord will listen when we — the privileged and mighty, by the world’s standards — start listening to the children ourselves.
I also heard this week about the plight of child labourers. We pride ourselves, you know, in saying that our modern society has advanced and evolved to the point where we don’t treat our children like animals anymore. Look again.
You know all those balls we buy in our stores — footballs, soccer balls? Well the majority of those balls today are still stitched by young children in developing countries. They get paid only 33 cents a day in Pakistan, for example, and work twelve hours a day there. They are forced into this labour by parents who so desperately need the money.
But as a result, they don’t go to school to learn how to read and write. And because their bodies are developing so rapidly at that young age, many of their hands become crippled from the repetative stitching by the time they are in their late teens. Consequently they are unable to secure gainful employment when they are older on account of their mal-formed hands and lack of education. So, they resort to prostitution, drugs and social violence.
Is there work to be done here? Darn right! When we talk about the evils of this world — what about the children and their plight caused by powerful global, economic and social systems that enable this injustice? What are we going to do about that?
And yet, after we express our moral indignation, is this another ‘good deed’ we’ll put on the shelf of good intention? About which we end up procrastinating, feeling guilty, and finding refuge in getting ourselves busy because we are scared about judgment?
Not that doing little things won’t help. Not that becoming socially active for some worthy cause won’t do some good. It will.
But do the children have anything to teach us? How do we prepare for the work that will bear fruit, in the end?
I began this sermon by describing a negative cycle with which we are familiar, even and perhaps especially, in North American Christianity. We read passages from the Bible like we sung today — Psalm 1 — and instinctively we zero in on the images of destruction of the unrighteous. With fear and trepidation we secretly hope we are not one of “those” people (you can fill in the blanks from the news this past week); and then we berate ourselves with guilt into “trying harder”.
And often we spin our wheels in anxious activity, ending in disillusionment and despair.
There is another way — a biblical way, by the way.
In the lectionary study this past week we talked about the image of the tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in its season. But the tree didn’t choose to be by the river. The tree didn’t pick itself up, carry itself to where a river was flowing and plant its roots by it.
This image is not prescriptive, it’s descriptive. It describes the life of those who are, before they do anything, aware of where their true life is sourced, despite their circumstance. And, moreover, aware of the seasonal aspect of their activity. It’s not always, round the clock, 24-7, about doing good and being busy. There are some seasons of life during which dormancy, quiet, stillness, are not only a good idea and desirable. But necessary.
My mother told me a theological and living truth this week when we were discussing judgment day and the end times: For those who live in Christ, judgment day will be a wonderful experience. Judgment day will not be scary and frightening for those who are in Christ. She cited that well-known saying from Martin Luther: “If I knew judgment day was coming tomorrow, I’d go out today to plant an apple tree.”
Listen to the words of the biblical writer, Paul: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:1-2).
We don’t need to try hard to become like children. Because what’s one characteristic of children? — They don’t try to be anything or anyone other then themselves.
Our good deeds and good intentions will bear fruit in due season when we approach the end with joy not driven compulsion, with ease not by trying harder, with hope not guilt, with trust not fear, with gratitude not demands.
Amber (age eleven) explained: “God is my special person because I can talk to him anywhere. I can just speak to him in my mind … in the middle of class … on a race … sitting right here, just thinking, ’cause he can read my mind … So I don’t actually have to say a prayer out loud … sit down, close my eyes, and fold my hands. I can pray right now as I’m talking, and that’s one way he’s my special person.”
Although in her school public prayer was not allowed, Amber discovered that no one could deprive her of talking to her special person.
Lord, listen to your children praying. Lord let us listen to your children praying.