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What follows is the Sunday from the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Thanks, everyone, for reading.

“Raising our Children”

Proverbs 14:18, 14:26

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

June 20th, 2010

The life of a child is a simple life.  It’s a time of life when running through the sprinkler naked on a hot summer day isn’t considered a crime. When no one will call you crazy when you imagine ducks at the end of your bed or when you see skunks in your closet.  When the best toy is a long stick that can be a fishing pole, or a conductor’s baton, or a tool to dig for worms.  When the best game is poking your tiny little finger in your mommy or daddy’s nose, or eyes, or ears as you not-so-gently explore their face.

Being a child is a simple time…it’s a time of life when you don’t have to worry about paying the bills, or buying a home, or taking care of anyone beside yourself.  It’s a time of life when having a little temper tantrum now and then is accepted behavior.  It’s a time of life when good is good and bad is bad and there are no shades of grey. Yes, the life of a child is a simple, beautiful life—and a time to which many of us often long to return.

Proverbs refers to the young as “the simple.”  “The simple inherit folly,” we read in Proverbs 14:18.  Proverbs doesn’t mean simple, though, in a nostalgic, uncomplicated-life kind of way.  Instead, in its use of the word “simple” Proverbs betrays a bit of its condescension for children and the ancient belief that children were a little less than human.  Children are simple little things, according to Proverbs, born sinners, and in need of correction by parents who are not afraid of discipline.  That “spare the rod, spoil the child” saying is actually a bad paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24 that states, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” So for us more modern folks who have come to the healthier realization that it is better and more effective to discipline your child without beating them, we might pause and question what kind of advice these ancient pages might actually hold for us.  But, even though our philosophy on child-rearing and our psychological understanding of children have changed dramatically since the days of Proverbs, there is still wisdom to be found here.

Because in its description of children as “simple” Proverbs reminds us of the fact that our children are extremely impressionable.  They are blank slates waiting to be written upon by their parents, by their peers, by their schools, by the world.  They are simple in the sense that children are easily impressed upon.  This was true in the day of Proverbs.  And this is still true today. Depending on what kind of an impression is made on them, our children can inherit wisdom or they can inherit folly.

One thing I have quickly learned about parenting is that it involves a lot of worrying.  You worry about your child when he or she is not with you.  You wonder what he is learning, how she is being treated, what he is thinking and feeling during the course of the day.  You entrust your children to teachers, to babysitters, and to other family members.  But even though you trust…you don’t stop worrying.  You’d much rather keep your babies tucked neatly and safely under your own protective wing.

I’ve been watching a mother duck with her new babies at the park these past few months.  At first I marveled at the mother.  Her new ducklings were always swimming right behind her in a perfect little line.  Not one of them strayed.  Why can’t I keep my ducklings in a neat little row?  I wondered to myself.  I can hardly get my ducklings out of the car without one of them escaping my grip.  So I watched that mother duck with envy wondering what her secret was.  But as the months passed and those baby ducklings grew they too started to wander, and explore, and leave the safety and the shelter of their mama’s wing.  And I was relieved to witness this natural progression; I was relieved that it wasn’t just my babies who couldn’t be controlled.

Parents really do worry a lot about what kind of impression the world will make upon their children.  Parents worry about the messages their children are receiving from the television, or the internet, or from their friends at school.  But as that mother duck reminded me, we cannot control our children’s environment forever.  They will all eventually leave the safety of the nest and experience the world for good or for ill.  The only thing we can control, then, is what they will inherit.  What will we pass on to our children?  With what will we equip them as they venture out into the world?

Isaac’s birthday is coming up.  Shh…don’t tell, but he’s getting a new bike this year.  Dan and I were so excited to find a really great used bike at the bike shop in Southern Pines that we know Isaac is going to love.  We can’t wait to give it to him because we know he will be so excited and he will have so much fun learning how to ride his new big boy bike.  There are lots of things Dan and I want to give to our kids.  We want to be able to buy them some new toys every once in a while.  We want them to have nice clothes to wear.  We want to provide them with a nice home and a nice neighborhood where they can ride their bikes and play.  We want to provide them with a good education so we have already started saving our money so we can send them to college.  And all of this is really great.  It feels good to be able to provide for your children.  It feels good to be able to give them all these things.  But Proverbs wisely reminds us that the only thing we can pass on to our children that will be of any real eternal significance is good moral character.

Do the right thing.  Just say no.  Go to church.  Read your bible. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew and don’t go with girls that do.  Do any of these sound familiar?   Too often we boil down our moral character training into a neat little set of do’s and don’t’s, a neat little set of rules that don’t really develop a person’s moral character.  Such rules actually trivialize true moral development because they make moral living sound so simple and they do little to help our children think through complex moral issues.

I recently bought a t-shirt with a picture of a family sitting down to dinner together on the front.  Underneath the picture are the words, “Value Meal.”  Family dinners are value meals because they offer us the opportunity to talk and share and listen.  During conversations such as these we adults can model how we think through the complicated moral issues that face us each and every day.  We can invite our children into the process of our thinking and our decision-making and we can teach them, in the midst of these conversations, the foundational moral virtues for which we strive.  Family dinners are not always possible.  But I believe conversations in which we invite our children into our moral decision-making processes are essential if our children are to develop moral character themselves.

And as we adults invite our children into our moral decision-making processes, let us be clear about the morals for which we strive.  As we have been moving through Proverbs we have been reminded that the Godly virtues, the Godly morals for which we should strive are righteousness, justice, equity.  Is this decision righteous?  From God’s perspective, is it right?  Am I being just in my business practices?  What can I do about the injustice I see?  Will my vote on this immigration issue promote equity amongst our friends and neighbors?  Will my support of this politician serve all of God’s children, not just the ones who look, and act, and think like me?  By reminding us of the morals for which we–we people who claim the Judeo-Christian faith–strive, Proverbs paints us a picture of a person with good moral character.  Proverbs paints us a picture of a person with her hand on her chin as she thoughtfully considers the decisions and the situations before her.   Proverbs paints us a picture of person with his angry fist raised in the air as he protests and stands up against injustice.  Proverbs paints us a picture of a person all alone as she boldly and courageously speaks truth to power.  Proverbs paints us a picture of a person whose hand is open and outstretched as he welcomes the stranger, the foreigner, the other, the different.  Proverbs paints us a picture today of a person who is trembling, whose knees are knocking, whose hair is standing on end, because she is in the presence of the Lord and because she knows fear.   Proverbs paints us a picture today of a person with good moral character; a person of good moral character who strives for righteousness, justice, and equity; a person of good moral character who lives his or her life in fear, not in fear of the world or in fear of what others might think, but in fear of the Lord and what the Lord might think.

In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and one’s children will have a refuge.

No parent is perfect.  All parents make mistakes.  Some days we make lots of mistakes.  And…as we were reminded by mother duck…we cannot control our little ducklings.  They are, each of them, their own little duckling self who will grow up, leave the nest, and decide for themselves what to do with the inheritance we have so painstakingly offered them. But if we live our lives in fear of the Lord, if we live striving for righteousness, and justice, and equity, then we can live with the strong confidence that the God who offers us refuge is there for our children as well.  There to shelter them.  There to nurture them.  There to challenge them and to redirect them.  There to parent them as we only wish we could.  As Proverbs says, our children are simple.  They are so impressionable.  But they are also extravagantly rich in the inheritance offered to them by those who fear the Lord and by the God who loves them as God’s very own.

Now to the God to whom we entrust our children, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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Thursday Morning Angst

Thursday morning has arrived and I find myself feeling vulnerable and anxious.  At first I questioned my emotions, Why am I feeling this way?  There is no reason for it?  I should be feeling great?!  My daughter actually let me sleep through the night?!  As I arrived at the office, though, I identified the source of my angst.  This is the time of the week when I feel this way.  I forget how it feels every week, until I arrive here again and I remember.  Today is my in-between time.  I am in-between the sermon that has been outlined in my head and the sermon that is actually written and ready for Sunday morning.  I hate this in-between time.  But I stay here, prolonging my agony, longer than I should.  I procrastinate.  I get busy doing other things.  And the actual sitting down to write gets put off.  Why do I torture myself so?  Why don’t I just write the darn thing?  Well….I think the honest truth is that the actual writing is painful and difficult and all too often slow.  And I procrastinate because I fear that it just won’t come out of me this week.  Yes, it’s in my head.  But can I translate it to paper?  Can I actually make this sermon a reality, breathe life into it, and make it sing?  I doubt myself and my talents every single week.  The only thing that gets me over this Thursday, in-between-time hump, is my faith that God will be with me, and the trust that has grown in me (after doing this for about eleven years) that the Spirit has something to say…if I will only get myself and my fears out of her way.

I continue to focus on Isaiah 43: 1-7 for this Baptism of the Lord Sunday.  I’ve been practicing saying Isaiah’s words over the heads of my children every night after they have gone to sleep.  “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” These words are perfect for a mother to whisper over her children’s heads.  They are perfect for a mother and her children, but in Isaiah’s text it is God saying these words to God’s people….all of God’s people…all of God’s creation.  Again, Isaiah is inclusive.  These words are for everyone (every thing) that God created, and formed, and named.  I am yours, God says through the prophet Isaiah.  And, “You are mine.” Again, God is as possessive as a mother…and as protective.  The love expressed here is so intimate that it’s hard to believe it’s meant for us.  It’s hard to imagine God loving us this much.  I think I might refer to Maya Angelou’s story about her Sunday School teacher who made her say, over and over again, “God loves me, God loves me, God loves me.”  Then, when she was done, her teacher told her, “Now try to know it.”  It is so hard to believe, and know, that God loves us this much.  These “comforting and hopeful words of Isaiah 43:1-7 are easier to read and write about than they are truly to hear and believe.  [So] this is a passage we need to return to over and over, just as we need to be reminded of our baptisms.  Words this good—love this uncommon—take time to be believed and absorbed.”[1]

Yes, words this good, love this uncommon, are hard to believe and absorb.  They are also harder still to embody.  I want to conclude my sermon by reminding us of the church’s role to embody this amazing, intimate, and inclusive love.  A pastor blogged[2] this week about the funky restaurant that she frequented in order to write and reflect on her sermons.  She goes to this restaurant because “the music is soulful and the ambience is warm.  The coffee and tea are offered in wide mugs by friendly but not pushy servers.  The art on the wall is provocative.  The feeling is inclusive.”  She gathers there with other strangers who all become temporary colleagues, while working on their laptops and sipping their coffee.  They suggest to each other what salads to try on the menu and watch each other’s computers if someone needs to slip off to the restroom.  Then she hears one of these strangers say something out loud, sort of to herself.  And the pastor replied, “What did you say?”  And she said it again: “I wish my church was like this.”

This blogging pastor interpreted her words to mean, “I wish the church was easy and warm and comfortable and diverse and tangibly hospitable.  I wish there was more art and moving around and conversation and work and laughter and sitting and even praying.”

This was a great blog and it offered us, the church, a great challenge for the new year.  How can we, as the church, embody God’s inclusive love?  How can we make our sanctuaries, our community, our worship, our programs, warm and soulful, provocative and inclusive?  How can we offer hospitality to the people of the world dying to hear the Good News that, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

Our baptism reminds us of God’s great love for us.  But our baptism also sends us, challenges us, calls us to glorify God by embodying this love for others.

So…enough of this angst…maybe now I can start writing.  🙂

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.


[1] W. Carter Lester, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, “Pastoral Perspective,” pg. 222.

[2] http://www.achurchforstarvingartists.com/2010/01/this-is-what-church-could-look-like.html

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Monday’s Thoughts

Returning from a week of vacation I spent some time this Monday morning contemplating the quiet of my office.  On the one hand, I am so happy to be back at my desk, reading, thinking, praying, and relishing the quiet time that my work often affords me.  On the other hand, I miss my children.  I kissed them goodbye this morning with mixed emotions as they left with Dan for daycare.  Spending the week with them was wonderful, and joyful, and, more simply put, full….full of laughter and smiles, full of diaper changes, temper tantrums, and first attempts at potty training.  Full of “No’s”, and “Stop, please!” as well as full of sweet, sweet, “I love you’s.”  The week was full…full of family.  And now I return to a full week’s worth of work…of sermonizing, of preparing for officer training, and of pastoring.  It is good to be back.  It is also good to be full and to be filled.

This Sunday (Baptism of the Lord Sunday) we will ordain and install our new officers while renewing our baptismal vows.  In the past I have focused on the Gospel text of Jesus being baptized for this service.  But this year I’d like to do something different.  So I have begun reflecting on the Isaiah passage (Isaiah 43:1-7).  I wrote this passage out freehand in my giant, artsy sketchbook (a trick Anna Carter Florence taught me) and I uncovered a moment shared of genuine, honest love.  God, speaking to God’s people, shares words like I might share with my son, or my husband, in the dark room, right before bed, right after the good night kisses.  “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,” God says.  So intimate.  So close.  I can almost feel God’s breath on the cheek of God’s beloved….and wait, that’s me, I am God’s beloved.  You are God’s beloved.  We are all God’s beloved.  The commentaries stress how universal Isaiah’s description of God’s love is.  These words are addressed to Israel, to God’s people living in a dark and desolate time.  But these words are for all of us.

I am struck by how possessive God is in this passage.  “You are mine.”  And how protective, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”  These are all things I would like to promise to my children, but can’t…because I know I cannot protect them from everything.  So what does God mean when God promises these things?  We will not be overwhelmed?  We will not be burned or consumed?  Can God really promise this?  I have been overwhelmed.  I have been burned.  I have been consumed.  What are you really promising us, God?

I have more thoughts…but not enough time to write today.  I’m hoping tomorrow will bring more focus, perhaps the beginning of an outline???  That would be nice.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Backseat Prayer

On our drive home today we hear Isaac pray to himself….

Dear God

Help us

We love Jesus

This prayer left us wondering…do we need help because we love Jesus?  Or do we just need help in general?  Both, of course, might be true.

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Imaginary Ducks

The imagination of our 2 ½ year old son amazes me.  A few days ago we spent about half an hour (long time for those with short attention spans) feeding the imaginary ducks at the end of Mommy and Daddy’s bed.  Every night in the bathtub Isaac serves me up some “ice cream” from the soda fountain of tap water running out of the tub’s faucet.  The pillows on our couch are not really pillows, but bridges and ladders and blocks for tunnels.  Our beige Berber carpet is really sand on the beach.

Being around Isaac just makes me feel more creative.  Why do we adults let our imaginations go?  Why can’t I see ice cream flowing from my bath water and ducks swimming at the end of my bed?  Before Isaac was born into my life, I bought and read a book called, “Drawing on the Right Side of your Brain.”  The book was supposed to help me be more creative…help me draw on the right side of my brain.  It was a good book with lots of creative exercises.  But eventually I got tired of the exercises.  I think I prefer just hanging out with Isaac.  I get plenty of exercise with him.

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