Last Sunday was our first Mother’s Day without Mom, which I was dreading, until Joan told me to snap out of it. There are benefits of long-time marriages, and one of them is candor, knowing someone well enough to speak bluntly, and putting the hay down where the goats can get it.
“Snap out of it,” she said.
Then to make sure I would not have time to feel sorry for myself, she invited all my family over for hamburgers on the grill, and everyone came. I had made plans to spend the day quietly sulking, instead the day was hectic and chaotic, and our three-year-old granddaughter Madeline was there and wanted her grandpa to lift her in the air so she could pretend she was a bird, so I did. And as she soared, so did my spirit.
I decided to set aside Monday to be gloomy and feel sorry for myself, and my project was well underway (I have always excelled at gloom) when I heard voices on our back porch. It was Charlie, the little boy from next door, with Maddie and Audrey, the 7 year-old-twins to the west of us, who thought it would be nice to sit on our porch and eat popsicles, if we had some, which we keep just for that purpose, so we did that. They told me about their school day, and I told them about an essay I had written that day about cheerfulness and optimism, and they saw right through this old fraud. You can’t ever fool a kid.
So I’ve been thinking about children…
I’ve been thinking about children, especially this week, since we’re honoring our graduates, which has put me in mind of my own high-school graduation, 39 years ago, when Lee and Mary Lee Comer were my youth group leaders and for my high school graduation present gave me a suitcase and a bus pass. They said, “There’s a whole big world out there, and we want you to see it. As soon as possible.” Isn’t that wonderful! They were always so encouraging. I could tell I held a special place in their hearts, because they didn’t give any of the other kids in the youth group a suitcase and bus pass, just me.
So today we’re thinking about children, and especially our graduates—Dara, and Lina, and Philip. All with such bright futures. Smart, and lively, and hard-working. Dara and Philip, we watched you grow up. You were dedicated by this community in our white meetinghouse, the first year I was your pastor. Lina, you came to us from the Ukraine, and have made your way into our hearts. We love you all. This place, these people, will always be your home.
We give you our heartfelt congratulations, and, though you haven’t asked for one, we offer an apology. We had intended to hand off a better world to you, a better America to you, but too often we stopped thinking about the children.
We elected leaders who appealed to the worst in us, not the best, who told us we should keep more, and give less. They made it seem so right, so responsible, so patriotic, we found their words and visions enticing. We weren’t thinking about the children, and what our choices might mean for you—more obligations, less opportunities; more debt, less freedom.
Having secured an education for ourselves, we gave little thought how you might obtain yours. We told you a college education was essential to your future, imperative to your success, then priced it beyond your means.
We so feared being labeled as “socialists” and “communists,” we forgot the power of words like “together” and “community” and “watching out for one another.” So we never insisted on universal health care, or living wages, or capitalism informed by compassion. We weren’t thinking about the children.
We so mistrusted our fellow humans, we secured our safety with weapons, forsaking the hallmarks of civilization—good will, cooperation, faith, and trust.
In the words of the prophet Ezekiel, we have eaten sour grapes, and our children’s teeth are set on edge. But the day is not done, and I have noticed that every time the sun has set, it has risen again. And so it will again, when we think about the children.
That Masai tribe of Africa judge a society’s well-being on the status of its children, so when greeting one another will ask, “How are the children?”
I can think of no better litmus test for public policy or religious doctrine than to regularly ask ourselves, “How will this affect our children? Will this increase our children’s happiness or contribute to their misery? Will it improve their prospects or diminish them? And not just our children, but the world’s children.
Any country, any culture, that doesn’t make the well-being of children a priority, not only owes it children an apology, it owes them a commitment to urgency, an earnest vow to mend its flaws today, not tomorrow. Any country, any culture, that doesn’t think about its children is a failed state.
I was thinking about my mom last Sunday, an early memory of waking up in the middle of the night and finding my mom studying at the kitchen table. There were five of us kids to care for, Mom was teaching full-time, and going to college at night to get her degree. When I was little, I thought she did those things to better herself, but now I know she had did those things to better us, to increase our opportunities, to teach us what was possible, what could be done.
I can’t count the times I have drank from the well of her example. Whenever I’ve felt like giving up, I’ve thought to myself, “Wait a minute. Mom raised five kids, and worked full-time while going to college. And did all of that without killing any of us.” It’s quite remarkable, when you think about it.
So Graduation Day came. Mom baked me a cake. Chocolate, my favorite. The Comers gave over, bearing a suitcase and bus pass. Maybe it was just a suitcase. That was a long time ago and I might not be remembering it exactly right. I do remember my mother didn’t buy me a gift. She didn’t have to. She had already given me the best gift an adult can ever give a child—an unswerving commitment to their future.
We gather today to honor children who have done well. We ask their forgiveness for failing to pass on a better world, for eating sour grapes and setting their teeth on edge. We pledge anew to do better, to love better, think better, and be better. This is our sacred vow. Amen.