Lessons from Children
February 10, 2013
You may recall the iconic picture from John F Kennedy’s presidency that is being displayed this morning on our screens. As you can see, it is a snapshot of Kennedy at work in the Oval Office while young JFK Jr. or John John as he was called, plays under the desk. The picture suggests at least in part that even though he was the most powerful man in the world at the time that Kennedy made space in his schedule for his children.
Now, I am quite certain that this was not always that case. And, while I am in no way insinuating that Kennedy was or was not a model parent, the idea conveyed by this picture is documented to have been true at least on one other occasion beyond this photo.
You see, Kennedy, was quite faithful to preserving his thoughts and feelings about both world events and everyday experiences through the use of the Dictaphone in the Oval Office. One day, in 1963, Kennedy was quite discouraged by recent events in Vietnam. The situation of concern had not been handled appropriately Kennedy felt and he sat down to record his feelings and thoughts about lessons learned from the experience. As he spoke with both an obvious tone of frustration and concern, one can hear another voice appear on the recording literally out of nowhere. “Hello,” says the childish voice of three-year-old John John, as the toddler completely ignores the significance of the moment or the subject matter that his father is attempting to preserve.
What is equally fascinating is that when John John broke into the room, his father immediately shifted his attention and his focus to his son. For the next few minutes they talked about the seasons of the year and the things that they did in their family during those various times.
In an instant, the mood and the conversation shifted from Coups, Warfare and Vietnam to leaves, sailboats and Hyannis Port, Maine all because a little boy wandered into the room and a father stopped to listen. Ironically, Kennedy could have never known how fleeting such moments would be in his life with his son. But, only three weeks later he would be assassinated in Dallas. (In Kennedy’s Recordings, History’s Raw Materials, Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, Sept. 22, 2012.)
A very similar scene unfolds in our text for today from Luke’s gospel. The disciples and Jesus, like JFK, find themselves at a critical juncture in their work. The masses are continuing to respond to Jesus in different ways that is leading to both rewarding opportunities for teaching and ministry and to concerning occasions for interacting with both the Jewish and the Roman leadership. These are good days and tense days at all the same time for Jesus and the disciples and there is a lot on the line. In the midst of all that there is to do and to talk about, a group of people show up out of nowhere with their children seeking Jesus’ time, attention and blessing.
In both of the accounts that tell this story, namely the gospels of Mark and Luke, the disciples and Jesus respond quite differently to this request. The disciples, on the one hand, try to get rid of these parents and their children as they appear to insinuate that Jesus is far too busy for such trivial things. Jesus, on the other hand, welcomes the children while becoming agitated with the disciples, according to Mark’s version, for suggesting that they should go away.
In essence, it is as if the disciples want to say to this group of parents and children, “go away, can’t you see that we are in the middle of something important.” While at the same time, Jesus seems to be saying, “welcome, what could be more important than spending time with you and your beautiful children.”
This is such an important story for us to interact with and to listen to. In fact, there are few better passages to consider when it comes to the subject of our relationships for there are two critical ideas that seem to permeate Jesus’ behavior in this scene that are equally absent from the attitude of the disciples. Likewise, in my opinion and experience, it is living in the light of these same attitudes that Jesus’ exhibits here that can make all of the difference in the relationships of our lives as well.
This morning, I want to invite us to think about these characteristics of Jesus in light of our closest relationships—namely those with members of our family such as our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, our siblings or extended relatives.
Now, before I name these two ideas that we see exhibited by Jesus, let me pause and offer a brief parenthesis. While I certainly believe that these are critical attitudes to exhibit, they certainly are not all that one should do or all that one must do in order to establish great relationships with family. Further, sometimes, even when we do all that we are supposed to do or that we should do, our closest relationships still do not turn out as we would like for them too. Without question, there is much that goes into relationships that is completely out of our control. And, there is much that goes into relationships that falls at the feet of the other person just as there is much that falls at our feet. As the old saying goes, it certainly does take two to tango. So while these are important lessons to embrace, they are not silver bullets or quick fixes in and of themselves.
But, they are important and they are crucial. So what is it that we see in Jesus here that is so valuable? First, we see that Jesus’ recognized that these children and their parents were important—that is to say, they were a priority. As has already been mentioned, there was a lot going on in Jesus’ life and in the life of the disciples when these unexpected families arrived. The disciples reacted by saying to these families—“you are not a priority, please go away”. Jesus, however, reacted by seeing them as the most important focus of his time and attention in that moment.
Living in relationship, particularly with members of our family, means battling every day between these opposing feelings as well. If our relationships with our spouse, children, parents and other family members are going to be all that God wants them to be, we must always affirm that these relationships are a top priority in our lives. In other words, in the midst of all that we have on our plate, beyond our relationship with God, nothing should trump the relationships we have with family in terms of importance.
Now, lest we think otherwise, this is easier said than done. Without a doubt, almost every day, our job, other people, community responsibilities, hobbies and other things constantly vie for our energy and our focus. As a result, every day, we are tempted to embrace those aspects of life as our top priorities by allowing them to replace other things and they will gladly allow us to place them in this spot in our lives if we will let them. As a result, the temptation to replace our relationship with God or our relationship with our families with something else as our first priorities is always in front of us.
I must confess that I was eavesdropping the other day. I was in a public place and I overheard two guys who were obviously friends having a conversation. One of them was saying to the other that his job was consuming his life. In fact, it was so demanding at the moment that he hardly had time for anything or anyone else particularly when it came to having any time for his wife and children. The man sharing was younger than the other gentleman and I was amazed at the sage advice that he received which also quite frankly I took as good advice for myself. The older gentleman with little hesitation looked at him and said, “let me tell you something, they can always find someone else to do that job—don’t convince yourself for a moment that they can’t. But, your children can never find someone else to be their father.”
Indeed, it is about priorities. Mark it down. There will always be people and other things that will vie for the top spot in our lives that deserve to filled by our relationship with God and with our family. Without question, making and keeping our family as top priority in our lives is the first step to healthy relationships. Jesus modeled this perspective and we would do well to embrace it for ourselves.
Second, we see that Jesus’ made time for them. Once Jesus embraced people as a top priority in his life, he seems to have recognized that the best gift that he could give to them was his time. As a result, over and over again in the gospels, we see Jesus talking with people, eating with people, building deeper relationships with people. Sure, he taught them, he healed them and he ministered to them but that was all done within the context of his desire to spend time with them.
We live in a world where we are challenged to believe that it is the material things that we offer to those that we love that most signifies how much we care about them. But, I would argue that it is the time that we spend with others that truly signifies how much we love them. Further, studies show that such time is not only appreciated but it is also incredibly beneficial. In fact, a study by Penn State University just last year affirmed that the more time that parents spend with their children in one on one relationship building the more likely those same children are to grow and mature in healthy and productive ways. (Study: Spending Time with Dad Good for Self Esteem, Josh Levs, CNN.Com, August 26, 2012)
The golf writer James Dodson, not to be confused with the Christian speaker and author James Dobson, wrote a very beautiful book a number of years ago called Final Rounds. Dodson has just learned that his father was dying of cancer and while it was still feasible and his health would still allow it, Dodson, committed to taking his father on one final golf trip to play the great courses of Europe. In his book the tells the story of that trip, Dodson makes the statement, “golf is mostly about who you choose to play with”. In essence, Dodson had come to love golf not mainly because of the game, but, primarily because it was the place where he consistently spent one on one time with his dad. (Final Rounds, James Dodson, Bantam, 1996)
I think one could say that life is also mostly about who we choose to spend it with and that choice says everything about our priorities and how we will thus use the precious gift that is the twenty four hours that God gives us each day.
I believe with all of my heart that if we choose God and our family for our primary life partners and if we give them the priority and subsequently the time that they deserve our relationships will be strong and our lives will be full. Amen.