The great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote:
For so the children come
And so, they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come –
Born of the seed of man and woman.
No angels herald their beginnings
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show
where to find the babe that will save humankind
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs—
feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
They ask, “Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?”
Each night a child is born is a holy night—
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping.
I think people marvel at newborn babies for their cuteness, of course, but also for their extraordinary vulnerability, and the mystery of life that awaits them. We marvel at children because everything is radically before them; everything and anything is possible. Children are filled with potential.
The story of the birth of Jesus asks that we pause for a moment in the midst of our busy lives and meditate for a moment on tenderness, on hope, on love.
The story pulls you down to earth, and invites you to experience the world from a child’s perspective, to acknowledge your own vulnerability, but also invites you to revel for a moment in the rowdy charms of childhood, to greet that child that still laughs and plays in your heart of hearts.
If you bend down far enough to inhabit the world from a child’s perspective you may notice that life is strange and that the rules of engagement are, at times, contradictory, and often benefit adults only.
So, if I may, I ask that you move your hearts and minds closer to the ground, seek out the child still within you, those memories and experiences that nurtured you into the wonderful person you are this evening.
During this very special holiday season, when, throughout the world, millions of people are celebrating the birth of a refugee child from Nazareth, born unto a single mother in pitiful poverty, let us take a moment together, and marvel at the hope inherent in each new life.
A couple summers ago I volunteered as a camp counselor at an outdoor ministry site. “MoVal,” short for Camp Missouri Valley—a natural area owned by the United Church of Christ—is located just north of the Mark Twain National Forest, along an enchanting and beautiful stretch of Missouri.
I signed up to counsel Upper-Junior, which meant that I’d spend 24 hours a day with eleven boys, ages 9 to 11. We’d come to be known as the “Hickory Boys.” In addition, I’d be a Family Counselor to a group of 25 boys and girls. Together we’d bird watch, do archery, make crafts, swim, hike, boat, and do just about everything together for 7 full days.
Many of my fellow counselors were once, themselves, campers at MoVal. The camp’s directors, a married couple, met and fell in love there during their youth. But for me it was all new.
I wasn’t in love with anyone and aside from an acquaintance from seminary, I was completely alone in the wilderness without a single friend; adding insult to this loveless isolation, I’d be forced to dine exclusively on cafeteria food, and waste away in an Internet-less black hole.
No less than six of my campers cried from separation anxiety; half of them required medications for depression, anxiety, eczema, attention deficit disorder, asthma, and obsessive-compulsive disorder; I was given a camper known to leadership as one that “likes to start fights”; in the counselor debriefing session, my counselor counterparts chuckled under their breath, wishing me “good luck” as they heard my list of campers read aloud: “You’ll need all the luck you can get,” one seasoned counselor said.
“You’ll be fine,” said the fellow seminarian that lured me into the gig: “You’ll figure it out. It’ll be over before you know it.” Why me? I thought to myself, why do I agree to this nonsense?
Truth be told, the boys in my cabin were wonderful. After a rocky introduction, that night after dinner, to my absolute shock and amazement, one by one, the boys came to for reassurance, asking if I thought their mothers and grandparents were okay; they asked me to sing the camp song before bed to help ward off the potential for nightmares; they asked me to use my walkie-talkie to see if their sisters were safe in their cabins; and they asked me to pray that camp would be a rewarding experience, but mostly for extra time at the swimming pool and archery range.
Days go by quickly at camp. My Family Group was frontloaded with arts and crafts. So, Monday morning we hiked through the woods to a cabin outfitted for artwork. Once there, the group voted to make dream catchers and candles.
I and the other counselor split the children into two groups, and we began crafting. I began with dream catchers. And the first thing I learned about 9 to 11 year olds, contrary to popular opinion, is that there isn’t a selfish bone in their body.
As I walked around offering assistance with beads and strings I overheard the children saying things like, “I’m going to give this one to my grandmother.” Another child said, “When school starts I’m going to give this one to my new teacher.”
And yet another child said, “I’m going to give this one to my friend’s dad, because his wife died of cancer.” Nobody, it seemed, was making anything to keep for themselves. Then came candle making.
If you’ve never made candles before let me quickly spell it out for you: dripping hot wax, fiery wicks, and random buckets of cold water. (But in my case, you add two-dozen hyperactive 9 to 11 year olds, spiders, ticks, mosquitoes, bladders the size of oranges, and an outhouse built sometime around the early settlers began migrating westward.)
The children were so excited to make candles. They were pre-planning how and for whom they would make these precious pieces of practical art. In the midst of candle making a camper crept into mix. (Imagine a breathy, dramatic kind of kid) So excited, the little girl said in elation, “Finally, we’re making candles! I so needed to put candle making on my résumé!”
As the week progressed not a moment would pass without tears or laughter, or both. Morning, noon, and night, we ate, played, talked, and explored together. We’d worship in the mornings and sing by fire at night.
At one point during my week as a counselor I spent hours locked inside of a bathroom with 35 campers as a tornado moved through the area. If you think it’s physically impossible to simultaneously hug 35 people at the same time let me be the first to tell you that it is certainly possible, if the recipients have decided to treat you as if you’re a human-sized piece of Velcro; huddled in a cramped, humid, and smelly bathroom, I learned that children are selfless and compassionate to no end, even in the face of violent, sinister winds.
Through tears campers told me things like: “I can’t stop thinking about my brother, I hope he’s not scared”; another camper said, “I hope my grandma’s okay, she gets scared in storms”; a particularly sensitive camper said, “I hope we get to have dinner tonight, I promised [another camper] that I’d sit with him.
He’s really missing his mom and his teeth hurt because the dentist adjusted his braces right before we came to camp.” The storm would finally pass and friends and siblings were reunited against a backdrop of a glimmering and windy forest. The subtle resiliency of childhood turned a menacing night into cause for celebration.
When you survive a tornado with adults you count your blessings; when you survive a tornado with children you dance and eat frozen grapes. Nothing skates past the attention of a child without acknowledgment. There is a lesson to be learned there, I believe.
The morning after the storm we rose early to do yoga by the lake together and make friendship bracelets. As we talked, traveling through fields and forests, we’d observe birds dance sacred dances through the air, across water, and through trees; and we’d sing, constantly.
And each night the Hickory Boys lit a candle and passed it around our cabin. And every night I would listen as the boys gave thanks for the day and for each other. They’d share their fears and their worries, and they’d delight in subtleties so fine I’d have missed them without the mention.
The counselors planned a huge party to celebrate our week together at camp. After hayrides and tie-dying shirts, we decorated the community cabin, setting out glow sticks and neon bracelets, pretzels and fruit juice, guitars and tambourines.
The kids were so excited. Friendship bracelets had been given. And by nightfall we were dressed for the occasion in our not-so-dry tie-dye shirts and mud-soggy shoes.
And just moments before the Hickory Boys were to set out to join the entire camp in the community cabin for the grand party one of my campers, a brother in a set of quadruplets, came up to me and said, “I can’t breathe.”
As a sufferer of childhood asthma, I knew immediately what was happening: he was having an asthma attack, in the middle of the forest. Immediately I radioed the camp’s director giving notice of the emergency.
Moments later I heard over the radio that the camper’s parents had forgotten to pack an emergency inhaler. I could hardly bear to watch as the child struggled to breathe.
His parents called to inform us that they lived over two hours away, but that they’d be there as soon as possible. His mom asked if I could stay with him while he rested and conserved his breath. Unfazed by the threat to his life, the boy’s chief-concern what that he’d miss the party.
So, the breathless boy and I spent the evening together awaiting his parent’s arrival. The camper was disappointed in himself. “I can’t believe I had an asthma attack,” he said. “Why?” I asked him; reassuring him, I explained that, “It’s not your fault that you had an asthma attack!”
“Because when it started,” he explained to me, “I was on a nature walk and I coughed when everyone was looking at a turtle and I scared it and it fell off of a tree branch, and splashed into the water.”
He was crying by this point. Tears for a turtle, tears for the sudden loss of a splendid moment with his friends – absolute selflessness, absolute love – Moments later his three siblings walked in with glow stick necklaces and bracelets and snacks. His sister cried as she draped a glow stick necklace over his head.
His two brothers assured him that everything would be fine. After his siblings had a moment with their brother his friends began to show up, each of them with more glow sticks, juice, and snacks.
By the time the camper’s parents arrived he was asleep in a sea of cookies and pretzels, softly aglow in green, purple, and red, breathing without a wheeze.
After the boy’s parents took him home I joined the rest of the camp that had gathered by the lakeshore. To eulogize our week together the counselors had planned a sky lantern ceremony.
And there, below a sky reflected upward on the surface of the water 150 children sang into the night, and after a few panicked moments of lighting wicks housed in floating pieces of flammable paper, the lamps took flight, sailing up into the night, and across the still water.
Not a word was spoken. For the second time in 7 days 35 children embraced me at the same time.
Just before bed we met to share a communal passing of the candle. One by one, with their faces all aglow, the children shared through tears how thankful they were for their time together, how thankful they were to have gotten a chance go sailing and shoot arrows, and how thankful they were to add candle making to their résumés.
But mostly they were thankful for each other, thankful for friendship, for the support that saw them through to the end, and thankful for the new meaning and purpose they felt in their lives.
My task as a counselor was simple: return the children to their parents relatively unharmed.
I went expecting to be nothing more than a glorified babysitter, but I left converted by 150 little ministers, ministers that teach through their curiosity and thankfulness that life is marvelous gift, a gift most fittingly fulfilled in service to others, in selflessness and compassion.
During our final morning together I watched as parents and guardians arrived to pick up their children; one by one, each child reached into their bags, presenting dream-catchers and candles, bracelets and glow sticks, each one a gift for their parents. “I love you,” the campers kept saying to their parents, “I prayed for you every night.”
As I walked out of the forest to begin my journey back to the hustle and flow of my daily life I found myself convinced that it is the child within that teaches tenderness and sincerity.
I believe that is why the poet of the eight psalm imagines the greatest strength we have to face up to adversity is spoken “Out of the mouths of babes and infants.”
Maybe the greatest lessons we learn are in the midst of children. Could it be that the gospel writer Luke wanted to convey to listeners and readers, through story of a rowdy little child from Nazareth, an invaluable lesson: that it is childishness that preserves sincerity and hope?
So, this evening, I ask you this: “Are you daring enough to live a little closer to the ground, and let the child within you speak with hearts wide open?” To live at child-level you’ll learn that deep in the heart of each new life are marvelous wonders.
So, as you embark on this New Year, dear friends, be what you have always been: beacons of hope and promise for this sacred world. Merry Christmas, you rowdy children. Amen.