Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I’m actually spending Thanksgiving with extended family – which is a first for me. It took me 30 years to get to this point but Oliver, well, he’s beating me to it. He’s spending his first Thanksgiving with first cousins, once removed, great uncles, great aunts, great-great aunts, and great-great uncles. He’s busy kicking his feet while the dog show is in the background. It is a good early Thanksgiving afternoon.
Last night I attended an interfaith Thanksgiving eve service sponsored by the Upper Westside Clergy group. It was…fine. I still struggle with interfaith services – not because I find them inherently bad but, rather, I feel that the services end up losing the distinctiveness that each individual tradition has that makes those traditions life-giving. I loved seeing the rabbi preach, hearing a synagogue’s musician play, and hearing a gospel choir sing, but there is a muddle quality to interfaith services that strikes me as a forced experience. Maybe we just don’t have enough years developing successful liturgies for interfaith services. Maybe we just need more time to develop orders and the language necessary to properly blend the distinctiveness of many religious traditions into one whole. And it’s possible I’ll never particularly enjoy them – coming to Lutheran Christianity late in the game might mean I’ll always view L.C. as what is life giving for me. But I value the attempt and I value the space these services give that let me experience other traditions – experiences that I typically do not get.
Last night, however, I found myself reflecting on the lessons and the sermon for sometime afterwards. The liturgy was truly focused on children – specifically the belief in the power of children to not have a muddled experience of the divine. They are pure, innocent, beautiful creatures that should be listened too, cherished, and loved. It had many “precious little moments” feel to it. I found myself thinking about my son a lot. And I…related to a lot of the service. But there’s a danger with this kind of thinking, in my opinion. The danger is raising up the experience of children at the expense of other generations. There is a danger in romanticizing childhood, alienating those who never have those “ideal” experiences. And it runs into theological issues because, well, original sin. The innocence and transcendence of children doesn’t really work if original sin is part of your theological framework.
When I look at Oliver, I see love. I see transcendence. I see innocence. And I see myself changing. I’ve always thought of myself as a sensitive person, one who tries hard to put himself in the shoes of his neighbor. But Oliver made me realize how far better I am at it now than I was before he was born. Or maybe I’m just more sleep-deprived so my psychological defenses of self-centeredness are falling away. Yet…when I look at Oliver, I also see selfishness. I see a need for love. I see vulnerability. And when he wakes up at 3 am, wanting food, it’s hard to see him as completely innocent. Original Sin seems to be easier to see in Oliver then.
But, beyond that, the big danger is romanticizing the faith of children is that it concretes the definition of faith. It gives faith a shape and appearance that actually puts faith in a box. Faith, then, is defined as a specific thing, with specific boundaries – boundaries that are culturally, and socially, bounded. It actually doesn’t allow faith to live, grow, and dwell in our experiences, joys, loss, and pain. This romanticization actually belittles the faith experiences of those who are not children – or those children who do not express what is “typical” or “clear” or “beautiful.” And it takes Jesus’ words about children (we read from Luke last night) and forgets that Jesus wasn’t talking about the innocent of children but rather their inconsequential worth. Children are given value by God; their worth comes in spite of their place in society. Widows, orphans, foreigners, and children – all were the least in ancient Judea. All are still the least today. But God’s ordering and valuing does not match our own. They are welcomed not because they are beautiful, smart, innocent, or fit on a “precious moments” wall calendar. They are welcomed because God says so. Our worth is passive – it comes from somewhere else and not because of our own inherent goodness, awesomeness, or our own acts of innocence and “wonder.”
But that, of course, is a very Lutheran Christian framework. The truth is that Oliver is a human being. Oliver is gonna sin. Oliver loves being selfish and, in many ways, doesn’t know how to do anything else. And no matter how much I love him, or value him, or will fight for him, or believe that he is the greatest thing in the world – God values him more. And that’s part of my vocation as a parent – a vocation that has completely changed me and a vocation that I’m glad I have.