How do we live out the love that is lavished on each of us with our neighbours? I think that actions speak really loud with kids. Choosing to package up food for the local food drive or visiting the food bank, putting together a ‘we care’ bag (http://www.clwr.org/what-we-do/make_kits_and_quilts.htm) or make a meal for your neighbours and invite them over just because. Kids see how we spend and give and live- they see what is important to us – even when we don’t say it out loud.
Not every church is able to add a Youth and Child Worker to the staff roster. Nor is every congregation in the situation to renovate the church hall into a gymnasium. However, there are some simple things that every congregation can do to welcome children - and families - to church. Here is my top-five list:
#1: Smile - This may seem simple - but it's important. Smile at new families (and regular families). Parents are already nervous about the noise that their children create during the service. Your smile reassures them that they are their children are welcome.
#2: Prepare - Do you have a safe change table in an accessible place? Has it been cleaned recently? Do you have a place for a family to feed their children or deal with a fussy baby? Just as you're not likely to stay at a restaurant without a place to sit - neither is a family likely to stay at a church that never intends for children to be present.
#3: Be Open - Even if you have a nice clean change table - families may offer suggestions that you had never thought about before. Perhaps a rocking chair in the Narthex for nursing mothers. Maybe bags of toys in the sanctuary. Be open to these suggestions.
#4: Help - A struggling mom would be glad for an extra set of hands to help care for her two wiggly children during the sermon. And that dad with a baby in his arms would love to sing the hymns if only he could open the book. Don't be afraid to lend a hand. It may be more appreciated than you know.
#5: Pray - Pray for families - in the prayers at church as well as in your personal prayers. And tell families that you are praying for them. In many ways, this is perhaps the single most important thing that you can do. Hold the struggles and triumphs of your congregation's families in your prayers.
My mom tells a story about an elderly female friend who she would sit with in church. This friend persistently changed the “mankinds” in hymns and responses to to “human kind.” My mother remembers finding her friend’s zeal for inclusive language both surprising and distracting in worship. But by the time my mother was telling me this story, she had a new appreciation for the importance of using gender inclusive and varied gender pronouns in worship.
It is interesting that both my mother and I have had to work through a process of finding the “he-ness” of God in our worship alienating and from this alienation moving to an understanding of God as non-gendered/God as all-gendered. I grew up in a home that by no means insisted on the maleness of God; however, the worship I participated in and our translations of the bible reinscribe God a male. So, despite my opportunity to grow up with an understanding of God in femaleness and God in all-genderedness, I had to — still have to! — work to rewrite the words I speak each Sunday in my head.
Why do we still do this? If I understand correctly, God in the Hebrew Scriptures (in Hebrew) is not specifically designated as male. I would expect that the excellent biblical scholarship being done these days would have demanded ELW and our biblical translations used in church to represent this this. You might also think that the politics of gender inclusivity that we espouse in the ELCIC would demand an acknowledgement of the oppression inscribed in the very language we use to worship.
So where does this connect with parenting? As a mother it is my hope that my daughter doesn’t have make the same journey my mother and I made. Instead, I hope my daughter carves new paths for us- finds new areas of contention to battle. So, at home we re-write our lullabies. “I know your from the Father’s hand” has become “I know you are from the Maker’s hand” The maker in this song we call “she.” In other songs we switch the gender of the pronoun for God from verse to verse. These are small things. But I know that every Sunday in church she will hear that God is He and God is Father. As a result, we need to be intentional about mixing it up a little at home.
What it really comes down to is not language, but to my daughter’s sense of herself as a holy being, her sense that the creator knows her intimately, and that God is not a purveyor of the gender inequality and the restrictive gender categories that still exist today. Rather, these injustices are the effects of human labels and the limits of our linguistic structure. In short, I want my daughter to grow-up always already knowing that gender is not divinely appointed; it is a human-made system that even restricts our understanding of God! But because gender is a human made set of labels, we can change it, and that is the good news.
Our family has a tradition that we try to live out most days- as we head out in the morning we stop at the front door for a huddle- a quick prayer of thanks and hopes for our day and a kiss. I mostly don’t think about this ritual but there are days when I stop and am so thankful for that small moment where we gave thanks for one another, for our day ahead and the gifts God gives to all. Maybe this wouldn’t work for you- you all run on different schedules or getting everyone in one place seems impossible. What kind of ritual can you create that helps you connect as you head out or finish your day – knowing that you are connected and thankful?
There were many stories told out of Fort McMurray this week, with the fire chasing at the heels of those fleeing from their homes. By the time the entire city was evacuated, and people finally had to a chance to rest, to take stock of what they had been gratefully spared, and also what, so painfully, they had lost, the stories began to come out. There was the elementary school principal who left with a group of children whose parents had not arrived to pick them up, commandeered a school bus and drove them to safety. This was her job, you might say, to keep her charges safe, but she also did it without her own children at her side. Unable to give her own kids the reassuring presence of their mother, she was the mom for a busload of children, making sure they reached safety.
There were many other acts of kindness – people giving refuge, sharing gas, making space in their cars. And two other stories struck me: a Syrian refugee family that had just arrived in Fort McMurray described the trauma of being uprooted from their home yet again because of the raging fire, and finding refuge, yet again, among cots, without clothing and possessions. The story of the Syrians prompted an interesting reaction – after doing so much to rescue strangers from far away, was Canada doing enough for people here at home? Were we doing right by our “own kind?” And from there, it was only a matter of time, before the comments turned to questions about whether it was wrong to invest in foreign refugees while Canadians suffered, or when we might have our own emergencies here?
This is not gospel led argument. Jesus did not tell us to only look after our own – quite the opposite, much of his teachings are about welcoming the outsider, the stranger, the unwanted. What’s more, Canadians have responded to Fort McMurray in the same way they did to the Syrian refugees, with donations, with emergency government relief. This is indeed a tragedy, and lives will be forever effected. But people are safe, they can rebuild, and they will do so in a peaceful, democratic country. Emergencies here do not absolve us, as one of the most prosperous countries in the world, from serving the stranger outside our borders.
Of course, events like these, really make us question the notion of stranger. If you think about it, being strangers is really a sign of privilege – we are doing just fine, and don’t need the help of others. But when something like this happen – war or famine or fire – we see that a “stranger” posture only furthers the hardship. We understand that for a big country – in a wide world – we cannot sustain it. Let those in need give; for one day, we too shall be in need. The things we celebrate in our mothers – self-sacrifice, kindness, love – are the same things we honour during days of devastation.
This morning we are being called be our National Bishop to pray for peace in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Munib Younan is a small unassuming guy who is the bishop of all the Palestinian, Arabic-speaking, Lutherans in that area where war and tension are daily experiences. Bishop Younan becomes a giant when he speaks. I have heard him several times and I would like to give him a voice this morning because what he has to say applies.
Bishop Younan asks: “How can we live in this world and carry the light of Christ in us? It is easy to intend to live in the light. But once we are confronted with a problem, are challenged by society or are tempted to enact revenge, we see that this noble teaching remains a far-fetched goal. Paul gives us a set of instructions: “The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:9-10).
In these post-modern times,” Bishop Younan points out, “it is easy to label people as conservatives, liberals, ultraliberals, etc. Even Christians are categorized. I don’t pay much attention to all these labels, because what I care about is if we Christians live as children of light.
In days gone by, bolts of cloth were stacked in dark rooms. The merchant would pull out a bolt and hold it up to the light so the buyer could inspect the weave and check for blemishes.
In the same way, we Christians should stand in the light of Christ, so that we may see our flaws – our weaknesses, narrow-mindedness, judgmental attitudes and hypocrisy – so that we might confess to the Lord that we have failed to live in the light. Such repentance will bring us back to our call to live as children of light.
One day as I was walking from my office in the Old City of Jerusalem to Jaffa gate, a merchant stopped me and drew my attention to a passing woman and child. He knew she was a Christian and that the handicapped boy she carried came from a Muslim family. He was amazed that she would give such motherly care to a child not her own.
I answered him, 'Yes, as Christians, we are called to serve every human being, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation. We are called to be light. It is our witness and diakonia.'
We are to live as children of light – and let our light shine – not to draw attention to ourselves or because our salvation depends on it. Rather, we live as children of light because Christ, our light, has given us special gifts to share with the world. But we can secure the world by sharing God’s grace. We can secure the world by shining Christ’s light into the darkness. We can serve the world by loving each other and all humanity.
As members of the church, we are called to work to eradicate poverty, to secure the right to food, to promote the full inclusion of women in society, to condemn human trafficking, to call for just sharing of natural resources, to counter climate change and, above all, to work for justice. We are children of light when we promote justice, forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. We are to be proactive in working to eliminate Islamophobia, xenophobia and antisemitism. In this way the church, the communion of the children of the light, becomes a beacon of hope in hopeless situations.”
These are big gospel-centered words from a little man who serves a group of Lutherans in an extremely hostile location on the planet. His minority voice, screaming to be heard above the majority voices in that area, is a beacon of hope.
We see the beacon of this hope among the plight of Syrian refugees, where churches have been on the front lines of the sponsorship programs. And we see this beacon of hope in the Canadian response to the plight of those now homeless in Alberta.
One more story: In Edmonton, at a local grocery story, a reporter interviewed a family coming out with a grocery cart full of supplies. They had purchased the supplies to donate to the emergency centres now full of displaced Canadians. They knew exactly what that it was like to be suddenly homeless, to have lost so much. Just a few months earlier, this family had come from Syria, sponsored by Canadians, and given a new chance. Now, they said, it was their turn to respond. This is the infinite brightness of the light that Bishop Younan speaks about; once lit, it cannot be contained.