“What Do We Tell the Children?”
October 16, 2011
In some small ways this morning we are join with people of many faiths across our nation by participating in the National Observance of Children’s Sabbaths. This weekend-long event, organized by the Children’s Defense Fund, seeks to lift up the care and concern that people of faith have for children and to encourage our commitment to develop the kind of society that better nurtures and protects children, especially those who are poor, excluded, and vulnerable.
This is the fourth year in which we’ve observed the Children’s Sabbath. A few years ago some of the children in our church school had learned about Jesus and the children. We wanted to give them an opportunity to share some of what they were discovering. And the day developed from there.
In this congregation children and youth worship with us every Sunday. They bring a special blessing—and I don’t use that word lightly—when they help in the leadership of our worship. They increase our well-being.
It seems that each year, however, the message we hear about children is more troubling. In Iowa, the number of children in poverty increased by over 5% from 2009 to 2010. And that was a small increase when compared to other states.
Whether it’s Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Iowa City, one number keeps coming up: “We are the 99%.”
You see, the top 1% of Americans control over 40% of the wealth.
The children of our nation are, for the most part, members of the 99%.
In fact, 22% of children in the United States live in families that subsist on less than $22,000 per year for a family of four. 9% of American children are in families making less than $11,000 per year. 7.5 million children are living in extreme poverty.
And we in the church
Given that reality, listen to what Mary Jo Bane, professor of public policy and management at Harvard said a while ago: “Churches are among the few institution I see that [can] provide forums for deliberations based on our values and our morals and our commitments—as a kind of counter to the market.”
Churches—and I think she means congregations like this one—need to be leading the discussion about value and human worth.
Our culture follows the values of the market. The “bottom line” is everything. In more and more places money seems to be all that matters. Consequently, what Professor Bane calls “our values and our morals and our commitments” are threatened.
Ours is a consumer culture, and young people are not deaf or blind to all the messages sent about buying, whether in the comment of a neighbor or the words of a television ad. The messages are everywhere. One senior vice president of an advertising agency said: “It isn’t enough to just advertise on television. . . . You’ve got to reach kids throughout the day—in school, as they’re shopping in the mall . . . or at the movies. You’ve got to become part of the fabric of their lives.” Are your values or the commitments of the church as much a part of the fabric of your child’s life as the values of the market?
Face it. We in the community of a church are always in danger of succumbing to the ethos of the world around us. But we are also able to announce to the world that there are still higher values. We can say that something else matters more than money and profit.
Of course, we can say this only if we believe it. After all, if money is the greatest value in our country—we in the church have to wonder if it is our greatest value as well.
Dr. Diane Komp is a pediatric oncologist at Yale who treats children with cancer. She was once asked how she finds hope in families where a child has a terminal illness.
“I have asked them,” she says, “‘If you were going to rewrite the story of your life, would you wipe out any memory of this experience?’ And the truth is, for many families, they never really knew the important things of life before this threatened loss or actual loss came to them. Although they would not want the physical or emotional suffering of their child, they don’t want to go back to being the same person.”
She adds: “The message out there is: go after one of everything you can acquire, and that’s the way you’ll make your family happy. Money and possessions. And all of these families learned that that was a lie”
You’ll make your family happy with money and possessions. “And all of these families learned that that was a lie.”
How many of us are still living by that lie?
What we need, I think, is a kind of conversion, a new understanding of money and its role in our lives. Rather than being conformed to this world and its values, we need a transformation of our hearts and our values.
Jesus spoke about money more than he talked about anything else. He did so, in part, because of his great love for the people he addressed. He knew their value as children of God and so he spoke of both the pitfalls and the possibilities of money.
Once he told that very short parable that we heard this morning about a merchant who finds a pearl of great value and sells all that he has in order to buy it.
There is a sense in this parable that what is of great value is worth some sacrifice, that we will move toward it regardless of the cost.
What are the treasures we are willing to spend for something even greater?
What do we really value? Our children and their safety, our neighbors as ourselves, the health of the planet, the peace of the nations of the world?
Or one of everything we can acquire?
Remember, it was the same Jesus who told us: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The real questions we need to ask are these: “What are we telling our children about what we actually value? What do we tell the children about money, about our giving? Are we communicating to them that people are of more value than things?
Are we communicating to kids that getting more and more money is really the most important activity in life? Are we telling them by our actions that acquiring more stuff is our highest calling as human beings, as people of faith? Remember, most of us teach our children far more by our example than by specific discussions on the topic of money. Whatever the ages of your children in your lives, you and other adults important to them are models of what it means to live as Christians in this world. This has been said before, but it cannot be stressed too strongly: the adults in a child’s life are powerful teachers by their actions.
So how can we communicate the value and worth of each human being to them?
We can begin by looking at ourselves: how do we feel about our own giving? What invites us? What holds us back? Do we truly believe that God calls us to be givers?
Examine your style of living, not as a matter of thrift, but of faithfulness. Ask yourself—what changes do you need to make to allow your faith a greater role?
Giving is something to be learned, something we can teach. The story is told of one preschooler who sat with his parents during worship asking: “Mom, why doesn’t the choir have to pay?” This perceptive question may help us look at how we deal with money in worship. One of the best things that has happened here in recent years is the growing involvement of children during our offering. On most Sundays one child—or maybe two or three—will help receive the offering. How great and how compelling is it when those small hands offer you that plate? And they are so ready to bring the gifts of the congregation to the front of the church. From you they are learning the joy of giving. And they bring that joy to us as well.
Too often people come to worship looking for what they can receive, without discovering what they bring. The challenge for us is to help children and youth discover this church as a place for offering their gifts, and for activating the offering of themselves to the needs of the world. Perhaps this is a challenge for all ages.
Sharing and giving are not easy concepts to foster in children. A tremendous amount of intentional and consistent practice is necessary. Set an example. Explain why you give what you give. Consider the CROP Walk—the annual walk for hunger relief. Walk as a family. If your child is too young, have him or her sponsor a walker.
How we spend and give our money sends a message to the children of this church about what we value. Much of what we say to our children and youth about money is reflective of what we actually do with our own money. As we become more intentional about the economic education of our children, we may discover that we have changed our own habits as well.
If we are concerned about the peace, safety, and well-being of our children and all children, we will open ourselves to a transformation of our values, to a renewing of our thinking about money and possessions and people. By God’s grace we can change. And we can point young people in new directions.
As we open ourselves to the transforming power of God, we might yet come to, in the words of T.S. Eliot:
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less that everything)
And all shall be well and
all manner of things shall be well.
 New York Times, Sept. 17, 1995 quoted in “Voluntary Simplicity” issue of UCC Connections.