Trinity Sunday / Year C
We gather today in a place where we come to make solemn vows to one another in the presence of God. “Will you take this person to be your husband/wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage?” Other than “Who do you say Jesus is?”, this is perhaps the weightiest and most consequential question any of us answers over the course of our lives.
In a few moments we will witness two parents and two of their most trusted friends answer another seminal question: “Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?” Again, this is one of the most important vows any of us ever takes. And, once they respond, I will ask all of you here, “Will… you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?” Don’t underestimate the sacred nature of the question put to you and the responsibility you are taking on.
Raising a child in the Christian faith and life is not easy and it is not a given.
Are you familiar with what is known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, or A.C.E.? These are a variety of traumatic events that can occur in a person’s life before reaching the age of 18. Let’s take a little ten question quiz. I apologize beforehand because this will not be pleasant for some. Still, it is important. Count how many of these you can answer ‘yes’ to about your own childhood:
1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or act in a way that made you afraid you might be physically hurt?
2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or ever hit you so hard as to leave marks or injuries?
3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or attempt to or actually have sexual relations with you?
4. Did you often or very often feel that… no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
5. Did you often or very often feel that… you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, or had no one to protect you? or your parents were too drunk or too high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
7. Was your mother or stepmother often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or sometimes, often, or very often, kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker, an alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or attempted suicide?
10. Did a household member ever go to prison?
61% of all adults can answer yes to at least one of these questions. 16% experienced four or more. These traumas in childhood create a “toxic stress” which can actually negatively influence the brain’s development and can lead to physical and emotional problems in adulthood. While not always the case, these behaviors tend to get passed from one generation to the next. And while not every person with a high A.C.E. score commits violence, many of the people who carry out mass shootings experienced a significant number of adverse experiences in childhood.
Not every adult who had a difficult childhood becomes incapacitated from it. A key factor in overcoming A.C.E. is having significant adult role models in your life: a coach, a scout leader, a teacher, and guidance counselor, a youth minister, a neighbor, a grandparent, a parishioner.
When sponsors commit at baptism to raise a child in the Christian faith and life, they are, in part, promising to do their best to create a stable and safe home environment where the child can thrive by growing into his or her full, God-given potential. When, at his or her baptism, all of us promise to support the child, we enlist ourselves to be connected, affirming adults in his or her life. And it doesn’t have to be a heroic effort.
I often tell the story of a time when I was an assistant at a church in a quiet, small town where a high school freshmen took her life. As you would imagine, it sent shock waves through the community. Because I led the youth group, I was tasked to discover what tangible things young people needed adults to provide in order for them to know folks cared. I spoke with Jim, a very intelligent young man with whom I had a pretty open and honest relationship. I will never forget what he told me. “Keith, honestly, what matters most to me is when I am walking downtown [it was a community with a town square and lots of activity around it] and I pass someone from the church and they say, ‘Hi Jim, how are you today?’, that is what I really need. It means a lot to me that they know my name.” What does this tell you about the value relationships hold for our young people?
I collect stories like this from church life; stories where an adult makes a connection with a child or young person; stories about the beginning of a relationship which makes a child excited to come to church to see a friend – even if this friend is 65 years older than him or her. As I said a couple of weeks ago, Bishop Susan makes the observation most mass shooters are disenfranchised and lack a father-figure in their life. Flip the coin and I believe you will discover every happy, successful adult was brought up in a community of people who cared about him or her.
So, when I ask Theo’s sponsors if they will raise him in the Christian faith and life, I am asking if they will do their best. Of course life happens. Some adverse experiences are beyond our control. Others are completing within our sphere of influence. In their answering I expect they will do all in their power, with God’s help, to keep these things far from Theo’s life. When I ask all of you if you will do all in your power to support Theo, I am asking if you are willing to be a part of a welcoming, affirming, encouraging community marked by relational bonds which cross generations.
One final story I also like to tell. When my girls were young we took a weekend off and went to visit some friends in Roanoke. On Sunday, we went with them to their trendy megachurch. Task number one was finding the appropriate age room for our girls to attend Sunday School. We passed a very friendly gentleman dressed as a pirate, whose classroom in an atrium was a huge pirate ship. The room for my girls were destined to attend sported a TV mounted inside some kind of faux tree trunk. It was playing a glitzy Christian video called ‘Veggie Tales’ and my girls seemed interested enough to give it a try. At announcement time, the minister announced the passing of a church member who most didn’t know, but for years had dressed up as a clown and taught the second grade glass. It occurred to me the people helping to raise their children in the Christian faith and life were a pirate, a tree, and a clown.
Not here. Here, we are counting on you. Each and every one of you. And God has given each of you something very special and absolutely essential to pass on to the infants who come here to be baptized. It is the gift of your self. Are you ready to make a solemn vow?