I walked my wee hounds in a cool morning fog toward my young neighbor several days ago. He sat cross-legged on a culvert, his head down, and dug through something on his lap. The hood of his coat covered his whole head. His backpack hung loosely from his shoulders. From a distance, he looked like a bag of clothes someone left to be picked up by a charity.
He was waiting for the school bus.
He’s a good kid. Friendly enough but marches to a different drummer. Loves to sing.
Some mornings he leaves his house to wait for the bus while I’m still scratching myself awake. He sings as he passes my house. He sings at the top of his lungs in his weird vibrato-rich opera voice. He sounds like he has inhaled too much helium. The wee hounds lose their minds at the sound of him passing by.
“Wassup?” I asked. He looked up. His black mask covered his face except for his almond-shaped eyes. He looked like a Ninja.
I noticed that the thing in his lap was a sandwich bag filled with Legos.
“Hi, Mr. Jimmy,” He said. “Today’s my 12th birthday.”
I don’t know where he got the idea to call me “Jimmy.” I don’t mind but no one has ever called me Jimmy.
“Today?” I replied with false wonderment. “Today, this day, of all days is YOUR birthday?”
“You of all people were born on a Tuesday?”
“No, Silly! February 2nd!”
“Oh!” I said. “Well, the wee hounds and I will now sing a festive song to celebrate this glorious day.”
He laughed, “That’s alright, Mr. Jimmy. You don’t have to sing.”
Somehow the word got out.
“Well, happy birthday,” I said. “You want to know something really weird? I mean especially weird given that it’s your birthday.”
“Sure,” he said.
“No one else on earth shares this day with you as their birthday.!” I said.
“Yeah!” he said. “This birthday is all mine.”
His twin sister who attends another school might debate that.
“Let me ask you something, “ I said. “Does this day feel special, like a day different from other days?”
“Yes,” he replied. “It does. Does your birthday feel special?”
“Yes. I’m 70 years old and my birthday always feels special.”
He looked down and dug some more in his Legos.
I noticed his friend from down the street walked toward us, her Nike-clad feet about three inches off the ground. I’m pretty sure he thinks she glows in the dark.
“Your special friend is coming,” I said.
He looked up, saw her, and went back and fiddled with his Legos.
“She’s 13 you know,” he said.
I wanted to say, “And a foot taller than you!” But I resisted.
He looked up again but his eyes seemed focused inwardly.
“Who would have thought that on my 12th birthday the world would be falling to pieces,” he sighed.
I wanted to talk to him about that but before I could open my mouth the bus lumbered around the curve and hissed to a stop. The door swung open. My young friend struggled to hoist his book bag onto his shoulders. The Nike Angel helped him with it. “Bye, Mr. Jimmy,” she said as she giggled onto the bus. “Bye, Mr. Jimmy,” he said as he struggled onto the bus bearing the weight of the world in his backpack.
As the bus drove away, I could not help but wonder about the heaviness that kids bear during this Pandemic. I wondered about their fears for their families and friends. I wondered about how great a burden they carry about their own safety.
They overhear too much, speak too little, and act out a lot.
“Who would have thought that on my 12th birthday the world would be falling to pieces.”
I couldn’t get over his question. I figured that he just carried the usual hobgoblins in his 12-year- old head: Who likes me? Who doesn’t? Where do I fit or do I fit in at all? Am I being seen or am I being overlooked? What do I do with these feelings I can’t even name? Does the Nike Angel like me?
As the wee hounds and I continued on our way, a weird thought popped into my mind. I wondered about how kids like my friend learn to pray about their deepest fears, worries, and anxieties.
I wondered what young ones do as the burdens of life pile in upon them, when they overhear so many voices fight over politics and social issues. I wonder what happens in their minds when they overhear so much about the pandemic, the number of COVID cases, the death toll, and the overburdened health care workers.
I wonder what they think when they hear their Christian parents and grandparents sigh and say, “What is the world coming to?” (When the truth is they already know…or should.).
What will my little friend do with the burden of witnessing the world fall to pieces on his birthday?
We teach our children little prayers. Now I lay me down to sleep. Thank you for the food we eat. Be-with prayers. “Be with my grandma. Be with Freckles my Hamster.” That’s good.
“When is it age-appropriate for children to learn to lament?” I ask myself. The Thought-That-Thinks-Itself replies: “When is it age appropriate for children to know everything about things they ought not to know anything about at all?”
The filters are off. Our kids hear it all. Sometimes from other kids.
I would like to think my little friend might learn a little bit about it at church. It’s hard to think that without laughing.
In my experience, many, if not most, white churches don’t lament. (I can’t speak about the churches of oppressed people. I don’t know.). White churches praise and worship. We give thanks. We intercede and offer petitions. We supplicate until the cows come home. We seek comfort and encourage. We ‘be-with’ and ‘be-with’ but it’s a rare church who laments, which is odd especially for Christians who think of themselves as people of the Book. About 40% of the Psalms are psalms of lament. About 0% of the songs white churches sing are laments.
Jesus lamented. “My God! My God!” He lamented.
Paul lamented over the thorn in his flesh.
The martyrs shelter in place under the very altar of God where the Lamb stands in the center of the throne: “How long, Sovereign God, holy and true, before you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6: 10)
But most churches don’t lament. Few, if any, in church learn lament. And church children sit on culverts, ponder hard questions alone, and finger through their Legos.
As I thought about that I could hear someone object: “Shouldn’t kids just know the truth about how hard life can be and learn to live with it?
My answer to that is another question: “Shouldn’t they be prepared to deal with what they learn? Shouldn’t their prayers correspond to what they are learning?”
Another objects: “Shouldn’t we just teach out kids that God loves them and is always near?”
I answer: “Sure but when do our kids learn that the God who is near is also free, that God responds to our prayers out of his own freedom? If children don’t get that the God who loves them is also free, then how will they deal with the silences of God?” I fear they will grow up to be like many of us: we know God loves us, we know God is good, but we still flip and flop at night in bed wondering whether God will show up by Friday at 5.
Another objects: “Aren’t you overblowing this just a little bit? Do you think children really carry a burden of cares? Do children think that deeply about things?”
When I was 7 or so, I saw a headline on the front page of the Atlanta paper: “Russia May Attack Fulbright Warns U.S.” I had no idea who this ‘Fulbright’ was.
I’ve been 7 ten times in my life and I still remember that headline.
The headline terrified me. I remember spending a Sunday afternoon in the backyard watching for the planes All of the adults chatted and laughed inside the house. It was left to me to defend the family.
Tall task for short fellow.
Fast forward a few years. I was doing work in my yard. My daughter piddled around in the yard close by. She screamed. I jumped up to see what was wrong. I picked her up. Her face was tears. Her mouth was wide open yet too small for the size of her screams. Then she just stopped. Through snubs she looked at me quizzically and said: “Daddy, if God loves us so much, why does he make bees to sting us?”
She was four and had just had her first encounter with a wasp, a fiery dart from life’s quiver.
You tell me: do children carry a burden of cares?
Why are we reluctant to teach our children to ask God why the world has the audacity to fall apart on our birthdays or why wasps sting little girls as they innocently play in clover?
Could it be that we fear the freedom of God so much that we want to protect our children from God? Could it be that we direct their attention away from the silence of God by dousing them with the all-too-real love of God?
What will they do when the day comes when the love of God sounds like silence? How will we answer when they get wise to the truth: God does what God does. God speaks when God speaks. How will they learn that sometimes the silence of God is among God’s most loving acts? That God has made himself known, yes, but that God is also an unknown God, a God of Mystery. When do they learn that the silence of God may flow from the wisdom of God or even the mercy of God?
For sure, it is a scary world. Creepy even these days. We rightly want to protect our children from that. But do we protect them from that by pretending that the creepiness doesn’t exist? Do we train them to distrust their own perceptions? No, honey, what you are hearing is the wind. No, Sweetie, what you see with your own eyes is just illusion.
Let him with ears NOT hear. Let her with eyes NOT see.
Oh, the day will come when our children will become philosophers and ask a million why questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why didn’t God just create a more perfect world, a world that is free of suffering? Why? Why? Why?
They will do that because they learned from us how to gossip about God but not about how to question God to God’s face, with all due respect, all due humility but also with all due boldness.
Why did you allow my mom to die? Where were you when I cried out for your help? Why did you let the world fall apart on my birthday? How will we go on when the world is aflame? Why did you make bees to sting us while we were just out enjoying your good creation?
“I believe in you, O God. Help Thou my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24; NIV)
“How long, O God, how long must you turn your face from me?” (Psalm 13; NIV)
“Three times I prayed to the Lord to take it away…”. (II Corinthians 12:8; NIV)
When do we learn to lament? And when should we teach our children to do likewise?
I wonder where and when Jesus and Paul and the martyrs learned to lament. When did they sit among their bearded fathers and moan before Yahweh? In the synagogue on the Sabbath. At the Temple on Holy Days. At the knees of their fathers. On the laps of their mothers. That’s likely where they cut their teeth on all the Psalms, including those many laments.
I saw my little friend trudging back home at the end of the school day. The One who walks three inches off the ground walked with him. Suddenly, the little goof reached over and pushed her. She pushed him back. He pulled her hair. She smacked him on the head. He grabbed her back pack. She grabbed his. Round and round they went tugging and pulling.
I heard his stepfather shout from her porch, “You two stop that fighting!”
The kid knows how to wrestle with an angel.
When will he learn to wrestle with God?
Maybe when we do.