Monday, September 21, 2015

The Boy on the Beach & a Child in Jesus’ Arms

Aylan Kurdi.  You may not recognize his name, but everyone with access to a news outlet or the internet knows who he is.  We have all seen the photograph of his lifeless three-year-old body lying facedown on a Turkish beach.  It is in a position similar to a napping child sleeping in a crib.  At least twelve Syrian Kurdish refugees, including Aylan’s older brother, drowned in an attempt to find sanctuary from their war-ravaged homeland. 

It is estimated the civil war in Syria, now in its fifth year, has claimed over 200,000 lives.  4 million people have fled the country and, like Aylan, some have died in the process.  While each death and each casualty is horrific, the photograph of Aylan’s body on a sandy beach has focused the world’s attention on this crisis. 

That picture – now referred to as “The Boy on the Beach” – sits next to today’s gospel reading from Mark where Jesus holds a child in his arms and says to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.” 

Jesus’ act is an object lesson that brings to a conclusion a conversation about greatness, specifically about what makes a person great.  In our day and age we might answer this question in any number of ways: personal charisma, incredible athletic abilities, fame, fortune, power, the capacity to impose one’s will upon others… the list goes on and on.  We, like those disciples, probably do not associate greatness with paying attention to a child.

This teaching, like much of what Jesus gives us, is deceptively straightforward.  It seems easy enough to follow the chain:

What does it take to be great? à

Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all. à

If you welcome a child you welcome me. 

But Jesus is no right-brained thinker who offers a step-by-step blueprint for us to follow.  He seems to prefer the abstract, which invites us to ponder, reflect, and converse with others in order to understand.  Over and over – in a variety of situations and settings – we must ask what it means to welcome a child.  Perhaps the answer eludes an essay or sermon, but is something you recognize when you see it. 

Roy Waller told me that several children in our parish have come up to him and given him a hug since Shirley’s death.  In my mind, this kind of intergenerational connection is one of the most important facets of our faith community.  It is a sure and certain sign that we are living a Christ-like life. 

Roy’s experience got me to thinking about the church where I grew up.  I knew the names of my friends’ parents.  I knew by last name the man who led the children’s choir, the woman who ran the Sunday School, and the Senior Pastor.  I knew nothing of their personal lives and never would have dreamed of making a gesture of sympathy to any of them.  In that era, children were to be seen and not heard… and, if truth be told, if we were not seen that was OK too.

Years later, when I was serving in a church in Ohio, a teenager in the community committed suicide.  That tragedy shocked every person in town.  Adults in the parish wanted to know what our young people needed from them to make sure it didn’t happen again.  I was tasked to discover the concrete steps the parish could take to let our teenagers know we cared about them.  I spoke to Jim, a young man with great maturity and insight.  “Do you know what is really important to me?” he said.  “When I am walking down the street and pass someone from the church and they say ‘hi’ to me… and if they say, ‘Hello Jim’ and ask me how I am doing, that is really special.”  It was the first time I began to think about the importance of intergenerational connections in a parish.

I remember as a child being terrified of the Senior Pastor of our church, even though I don’t have a single recollection of an interaction with him.  Now that I am “the Senior Pastor” I can see in the eyes of many of our children they are, if not terrified, then intimidated by the ‘Godman’.  I have a resource my minister did not.  I get to speak to each child each week at the altar rail.  Christ is in our midst as I share the bread or ask God’s blessing.  My aim is to nurture this connection as I interact with our children in other settings.

What does it mean to welcome a child?  At the very least it means noticing those easily overlooked or dismissed.  It means taking to heart the reality of another.  It means renouncing yourself as the center of the universe in order to discern the value of others. 

Once, when I was child, a thought occurred to me that I might be the only real thing in existence.  What if, I wondered, everything else is just a figment of my imagination?  What if I am the only thing that really matters?  Imagine my surprise years later, taking a college philosophy course, when I learned that in addition to being wrong, this thought wasn’t even original.  There is an entire group of thinkers known as metaphysical solipsists who maintain the self is the only existing reality and all other reality, including the external world and all other persons, is created by the self and has no independent existence.

Developmental theorists believe there is a period in our infancy when every child is a metaphysical solipsist.  At the time an infant becomes self-aware the child cannot differentiate between the self and non-self.  Theorists speculate this phase begins to end when the baby’s hunger cries are not meet with immediacy.  Embracing the notion that my actions don’t always bring the results I expect begins the next developmental phase.

It does seem something of that infant experience lingers with us throughout our lives.  It is so easy to see only what we want to see; to block out what we deem valueless; to ignore what we hold to be unimportant.  Somehow, someway, I think Jesus’ teaching about greatness embodied in the act of holding a child challenges us to renounce these tendencies.  In their place he invites us to an acute awareness of those around us, those whose lives we can touch, and those whose path, through circumstances, crosses ours.

Betty Anne Kyle was always pleased when I mentioned stewardship.  The heart of Christian stewardship is summed up by three imperatives: Work! Pray! Give!  The work part is what we do here in our community to foster intergenerational connections. 

Given the opportunity, there is not a person who saw the photograph of Aylan Kurdi who would not have done everything in his or her power to save him.  The best way I know to honor him and to help those still at risk is through a donation to Episcopal Relief & Development’s Syrian Emergency Fund.  Episcopal Relief & Development has been engaged in Syria for some time now, working with Anglican agencies as well as Jewish and Islamic partnerships to provide aid and support refugee resettlement assistance.

In closing, I invite you to join me in prayer using a litany developed by the Church of England:

A Prayer for the Victims of the Syrian Conflict

We pray for those damaged by the fighting in Syria.

To the wounded and injured:
Come Lord Jesus.

To the terrified who are living in shock:
Come Lord Jesus.

To the hungry and homeless, refugee and exile:
Come Lord Jesus.

To those bringing humanitarian aid:
Give protection Lord Jesus.

To those administering medical assistance:
Give protection Lord Jesus.

To those offering counsel and care:
Give protection Lord Jesus.

For all making the sacrifice of love:
Give the strength of your Spirit and the joy of your comfort.

In the hope of Christ we pray.  Amen.