3/5/17: Children's Sunday Worship
Listen to the audio of each of our entire Children's Sunday worship in the links above, and read the manuscript from Scott's meditation below.
Learning How to Love
First Lesson: Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Rev. Scott Dickison
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the The Little Prince, wrote that if you want to build a ship, “don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” (1)
It is a truth about our humanity, I believe, that we’re driven not by abstract principles or well-reasoned, sound arguments, but by images that capture our imagination. We’re driven by some vision of what it means to live a good life—what it looks like, what it requires of us, and it’s this desire, this longing, this image of something greater out on the horizon, that sparks us into action, that guides and directs us in ways of which we’re not always aware. We are what our hearts desire, or, in other words, “we are what we love.”
Jamie Smith makes this argument in his wonderful book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit—a book that I’ve quoted to you before and that you’ll hear from again over these weeks in Lent. It’s the inspiration behind our focus this year: Learning How to Love. And as we’ve said, in some sense, to love is the most natural thing in the world for us to do—we are natural-born lovers, this is a God-given thing, I think, which is why children seem to “get it” so much better than the rest of us. But in another sense it takes practice and discipline to love the right things, rightly.
To love, how we’re talking about it, is not optional; the compasses of our hearts are always calibrated toward something. The question is, toward what? Where is your heart pointing? What vision is it set toward? As followers of Christ, our hope, our calling is to calibrate our hearts to love what Jesus loves, to desire, to hunger and thirst after the things, the people, the values and virtues that Jesus loves and gave his life for—the total of which we call “the Kingdom of God.” (2)
And this kind of love does not come easy. The truth is there are many different competing visions of what is good and right with which we must contend. We’re surrounded by them, in fact. We’re especially attune to this as parents, observing how our children absorb what they see and hear like sponges, sooner or later facing the hard truth that we’re not the only ones forming them, not the only one offering them these visions—we see this in children, but of course the same is true of us.
We’re surrounded by so many other visions of where our hearts should point. And it’s true that this has always been the case, but how much more in this time in history when our eyes and hears are flooded with so many endless images that we carry around with us on a screen of glass in our pockets—so many images telling us what it means to be desirable and successful and happy and fulfilled. So many images telling us what to care about and believe and concern ourselves with. And so before we can even begin to make choice about what we will pay attention to, we have to first realize all that we’re already taking in.
Smith tells the story of the USS Jeannette, captained by Lieutenant George De Long on a failed expedition to the North Pole back in the nineteenth century. (3) De Long’s entire mission rested on the maps provided by another explorer, Dr. August Petermann, that described a gateway through the ice and snow that opened into a vast “polar sea” at the top of the world. These maps were all De Long and his crew had to go by. And yet, Petermann had never in fact been to the North Pole, and these maps, it turns out, were not much more than his best guess drawn from hearsay. As Smith puts it, “it turned out they were heading to a world that didn’t exist.” As they ventured further and further North, and watched as ice surrounded their ships, in the words of their biographer, the team had to “shed its organizing ideas, in all their unfounded romance, and to replace them with a reckoning of the way the Arctic truly is.”
The world is filled with many fantastical maps of the good life—telling us where to go, how to get there, and what we will find when we do. As Christians we claim to follow a different map. A map of the world and of life as God sees it, which is to say, a map of the world as it truly is. This is, as disciples of Christ, our life’s work, but Lent is the season we set aside each year to reckon with these things.
It’s when we acknowledge the faulty maps we’ve been using and commit to letting them go, and support each other in following a different one—of journeying together by a new vision, a new map. A map orientated toward the Kingdom of God, which Scripture tells us is already breaking loose in the world, at times even through us. A map whose coordinates are marked by certain virtues—certain values that manifest themselves in habits or practices we aim to instill in ourselves, encourage in each other, and of course, pass down to our children. But we cannot trust that this will happen entirely by observation and osmosis, we must also speak them, name them and describe them. We must keep them on our heart, yes, but also “recite them to our children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” Write them on the doorposts of our houses and our gates so that we see them—so that we cannot go anywhere without being reminded of them. We do this throughout the year, of course, but in Lent we do it with urgency, for we know the cross waits upon on the horizon.
These virtues that we lift up are the habits of love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians: patience, kindness, humility, generosity, grace, courage, resolve, imagination. Mile-markers on the Christian journey. And they take practice! But it’s to this effort that we have been called and that we will practice together in this season. And it’s an effort we’ve already begun in this hour, as we do the work of reorienting our hearts by being led in worship by our children.
When we set Children’s Sunday for the first Sunday in Lent, we did so in large part because the calendar left us few other good options, and worried that it would not be “serious” enough for this season of penitence. But as we began to plan and prepare for this day, and especially as we chose this focus of “Learning How to Love,” it made perfect sense. What better leaders or examples to show us how to love than our children? Children whose hearts in some ways have not yet been thrown off tune by the songs and sounds of the world, but even more have also already been tuned by this congregation to the music of God. And just as importantly, children who take this music they have been taught and sing it back to us—how powerful to be called to confession by a child?
Children who see the world as the enchanted place that it is—a place alive with the presence of God, who know intuitively there is more to life than what is visible on the surface; more to people, too. Children who remind us that we are all in need of formation, always. That the potter never fully removes her hands from us.
So it’s good for us to know on this first Sunday of Lent that our children have taken hold of something of this vision of God’s Kingdom. They have grown to love, due in large part to your nurturing, the endless immensity of the sea, that is God’s Kingdom. We have seen this to be true over the course of this hour.
But, in truth, when it comes to learning how to love, children are never in question. Their track record is sound. It is we, the adults, who have so much to learn. It’s you and I who over the course of this season must ask ourselves: what is it that I love?
By what vision do I live?
Where is my heart pointed? Where has it led me in the past, how did I get to this point, and where is it leading me now? Is it the Kingdom of God— this vision of love and peace, joy, justice and wholeness for all people?
If you’re not sure, I invite you to join me in doing the hard work of taking stock over these few weeks. Of paying attention to the movements of your heart, the living of your days, the wanderings of your eye, the spending of your money—pay attention to these things, these things that amount to the life that you live and speak to the workings of your heart.
“Attention,” says the poet Mary Oliver, “is the beginning of devotion.”
God is never through with us, church. Each new day brings with it the promise of something wholly new.
Would this devotion begin, for you, this season?
Would it begin, for you, this day? Right
(1) Found in James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, 11
(2) Ibid, 2
(3) From, In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Side. As told by Jamie Smith, 21