My dad taught Sunday school for many years. He would often say, in German, that they’re all angels (Engel), but some of them have the letter B in front of that descriptor (Bengel = brats). That pithy saying summarizes the ambiguity we have in our feelings and thoughts about children quite well. Children both inspire us and drive us to distraction.
This balanced attitude is one of the things I appreciated about Bonnie Miller McLemore’s theological presentation about children at the Faith Forward Conference. It was clear that she spoke theologically, as well as out of deep engagement with very real children. This becomes even clearer in her book, In the Midst of Chaos, where she claims the chaotic challenge of raising children as spiritual practice.
She challenged us not to accept our NA society’s assessment of children as commodities (investments for a future return), consumers (to be targeted by the ad industry), or burdens ( we have a public ‘pricing’ on the cost of raising a child).
Instead, she modelled the mission of rendering children as fully human people, different than adults, but no less human. Bonnie presented us with the biblical view of children as gifts or signs of God’s blessing. These gifts were accepted as vulnerable people whose needs were respected. Therefore, our tradition has also viewed children as tasks.
For instance, when Moses led the Israelites out of captivity, they went at the pace of children and animals. How can we do our congregational life to accommodate the pace of children? When Jesus blessed the children, he lifted them up as model disciples because they were marginalized. His act also redefined child care as a mark of greatness in God’s upside down kingdom. Raising children is work, important and meaningful work, for parents as well as for the larger community.
Finally, children are not only gifts, they are also agents;individuals who grow in their ability to make decisions and carry accountability for their actions. Menno Simons already signalled this in the 16th century when he challenged Augustine’s descriptions about children’s fallen state with his declaration that while their tendency toward sin was covered by the blood of Jesus until they reached the age of accountability, they possessed a complex innocence.
So what do these ideas of children as gifts, tasks, and agents mean for our life with children? Bonnie suggested that we respond by developing a dance between leadership and participation with children and youth. Dance partners lead, but the leader can change. So, we need to recognize our role as leading partners as we equip children, and then trust their ability to take the lead in settings where we sense their ability.
I was deeply impressed with Bonnie’s insights. Along with the fine folk of the Vibrant Faith Ministries I claim that this alternating lead in the dance of life and faith will grow best as we adults relate to them as authentic, affirming, and available partners.