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Question: Who are you?
Answer: I am a child of God.
Good start, I think. And what brings it to mind this morning is this year's Children's Sabbath emphasis - "Say that I'm a Child of God," which comes from an old spiritual we will sing later. We Presbyterians add a big AMEN to that.
I love children. They are great fun. Some time back I saw an article in the paper that showed how first graders perceived their world.(1) Youngsters were asked to participate in a creative writing exercise in which they were to complete a famous saying, such as "Don't count your chickens before..." One little girl answered that one with, "Don't count your chickens before you fry them." "People who live in glass houses...shouldn't be seen using the bathroom," said little Nathan. "It's better to be safe...than on fire," answered David. "Don't bite the hand...that is not clean," said little Stacy. Here's one for you who enjoy gossip - "No news is...boring," said Mandy. This one I love - "Sticks and stones may break my bones...but hugs won't," said Ryan. Yes, children are fun...but I am glad I am not one of them.
It is difficult being a youngster these days, far more so than when I was growing up. When I was a boy, drugs were something you got at the drug store, coke was a soft drink, crack was the sound of a baseball meeting a bat. Not so anymore. These days, one in six American children lives in poverty (and most of them are in working families); one in eight has no health insurance; 13 million live in families that do not get enough to eat.
Frankly, it is dangerous to be a child in this nation today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US children under age 15 are nine times more likely to die in a firearm accident, 11 times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, 12 times more likely to die from gunfire, and 16 times more likely to be murdered with a gun then children in 25 other industrialized countries COMBINED.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 2.5 million cases of child abuse and neglect are reported each year. Of these, 35 percent involve physical abuse, 15 percent involve sexual abuse and 50 percent involve neglect.(2) Terribly sad, but to dismiss child abuse as a private tragedy misses a more important larger point: if children are not protected from their abusers, then WE will one day have to be protected from those children. According to attorneys who have represented them, four out of five death row inmates were abused as children.
If we as a nation were really smart, we would not let this happen. If compassion were not enough to encourage our attention to the plight of our children, self-interest should be. After all, this is the generation to whom we will turn over the leadership of our cities, our counties, our states and our nation. These are the ones who will manage our Social Security system, our Medicare and Medicaid. That scares me. What kind of future will we have if it is in the hands of men and women who have grown up so miserably? I shudder to imagine.
A report a few years ago from the Department of Health and Human Services says that at least one in five children and adolescents have a mental health disorder. At least one in 10, or about 6 million, have a serious emotional disturbance.(3) Suicide is the third leading cause of death among American teenagers. According to a report issued by a commission formed by the American Medical Association and the National Association of State Boards of Education, about 10% of teenage boys and 18% of teenage girls try to kill themselves at least once.
It might be nice to hope that if a child survives all that, he or she will at least get help in preparation for adulthood. Some do. Too many don't. Every ten seconds of the American school day, a child drops out.
If we were smart, we would do something about it. Spending on children, any economist can prove, is a bargain. A nation can spend money either for better schools or for larger jails. It can feed babies or pay forever for the consequences of starving a child's brain when it is trying to grow. One dollar spent on pre-natal care for pregnant women can save more than $3.00 on medical care during an infant's first year, and $10 down the line. In one of the most thorough studies reported, the Carolina Abecedarian Project (after the ABCs), followed 111 disadvantaged North Carolina kids for 21 years. Half were enrolled in a high-quality educational program from infancy to age five, while the control group got only nutritional supplements. All the children attended comparable public schools from kindergarten on. The result: those who attended preschool were less likely to drop out of school, repeat grades, or bear children out of wedlock. By age 15, less than a third had failed a grade, vs. more than half of the control group. At age 21, the preschoolers were more than twice as likely to be attending a four-year college.(4) As I say, IF we were smart...
Now, I realize that I have bombarded you with statistics. I do not expect you to remember them all. I run them past you to illustrate and reinforce the fact that there are monumental problems for our children these days. Why should that be? After all, we SAY we love them. The Psalmist says children are "a heritage from the Lord." Children are called "arrows" - "Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them."(5) But, as they say in Texas, perhaps in dealing with our children, we are "all hat and no cattle." Yes, we love them...we say. But we are also one of only four nations on this planet that actually executes children who commit crimes (which puts us in the classy company of those progressive and enlightened folks in Iran, Iraq and Bangladesh). Of all the members of the United Nations, the United States of America and Somalia (which has no legally constituted government) are the only two nations that have failed to ratify the U.N. convention on the Rights of the Child. I wonder what the Lord thinks of that.
Actually, I do not wonder. Our Gospel lesson makes plain that Jesus had a special place in his heart for children. As was the custom in Palestine, Jewish mothers brought their youngsters to a famous Rabbi for a blessing. It was such a situation that prompted the little story we find in Mark's record. One might think it strange that the disciples would have tried to stop such a thing. They were not boorish or ungracious men - they were simply trying to protect their Master from being overwhelmed. Jesus would have none of it though. He said, "Let the little children come to me."
One of the things we need to note in this lesson is that Jesus was indignant - ANGRY - at what was being done. It is not hard to imagine how he feels about the situation of the children of our world today. He would indeed be angry over the lack of elementary rights denied to those we call "underprivileged." He would be angry over our limp acceptance of the preventable poverty which condemns children not only to suffering but to the withering of the soul. He would be angry over our tolerance of all the vicious forces that prey upon children. He would be angry that his own people...we who call ourselves Christians... are content to let it happen.
"Let the little children come to me; and do not hinder them." Many of us grew up learning that verse in the King James Version and its wonderful Elizabethan English - "Suffer the little children to come unto Me and forbid them not." We can easily escape condemning ourselves in that word "forbid." Who would forbid a child's coming to Jesus? None of us. The word suggests active, conscious, deliberate obstruction.
But the obstruction, the stopping, may be unconscious. It may come simply from neglect to take some positive action. In our own homes we may stop children from coming. We can do it by making Christ unattractive through our own example. We can do it by showing from the decisions we make that we do not consider Jesus very important - if we are at worship on Sunday, OK; if not, OK too. We can stop our children simply by neglecting their religious life. We can stop the children of a community, a nation, and a world by our provision of nothing but lip service in their behalf. That ought not to be.
In his book, The Moral Life of Children,(6) Robert Coles tells the story of Ruby Bridges. Ruby was six years old when a Federal judge ordered that an elementary school in New Orleans be integrated. Ruby and three others were the first black children to enter that elementary school. Every morning as she arrived at school and every afternoon as she went home, accompanied by federal marshals, fifty to a hundred people met her at the door. They shouted obscenities, threatened to kill her, and they spit at her. Dr. Coles was researching what happens to a child living under stress. Coles was so sure that Ruby would crack under this stress that he asked her teachers to watch for signs. One day a teacher noticed that Ruby was talking to the people who greeted her so angrily at the door of the school. The teacher asked Ruby about what she was saying but Ruby denied talking with them. So the teacher called Dr. Coles to report what might be the first signs of cracking. And when Coles met we Ruby what he discovered was that each morning and each evening as she passed the crowds, she was not speaking to them but praying for them. "Why Ruby," he asked. "Why would you pray for them?"
"Because they need praying for," she said.
Coles replied, "You know, frankly Ruby, I don't feel like praying for those people."
Ruby said, "There are sometimes I don't feel like praying for them either, but you should pray for them even if you don't feel like praying for them."
"And what do you pray?"
"Forgive them. They know not what they do."
Folks, Ruby caught that kind of faith from her parents and from her church.
There will be no real progress, no genuine hope for America's children to ALL be looked upon as GOD'S children until some sense of urgency forces us to reconsider our values. That Congress and the administration could give business a $136-billion tax break this week while so many millions of American youngsters cannot get medical care is unconscionable. The ultimate test of any civilization is not the power of its armies nor the size of its gross national product but the condition of its children. If they flower, a society deserves to be described as flowering. At the least, they are owed food, clothing, and shelter. If they are corrupted, if they suffer, if they die from abuse or neglect, an atrocity has been committed for which no other achievement can atone. We can and should do better.
At a Christmas Eve Children's Service at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Decatur, Illinois, the priest, surrounded by about 100 youngsters at the altar addressed the parents as follows: "Christmas is the time to be thankful for the blessings in our lives. I am thankful for two things. I am thankful for all these wonderful children with us here today - I love them all. And I am also thankful for the gift of celibacy."
As I said at the beginning of this, I am thankful I am not a child (I will pass on that celibacy thing). And I am thankful that there are Christian people who care enough about children to make them a priority, who provide help through those difficult years, and particularly to those youngsters who are at risk. These are the people who listen and respond when the Lord says, "Let the little children come to me; and do not hinder them..." Are you one of those who care? Are you?
1. Associated Press, "Kids Say the Darndest Things," Charlotte Observer, 11/26/87, p. 6F
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1999). Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
4. "Does Universal Preschool Pay?" Business Week, 4/29/02
5. Psalm 127:3-4
6. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1987