The Embrace of Jesus

On a bookshelf in my office is a new decorative piece that I received in Jerusalem. It is an olive wood carving of Jesus.

It is not the only such carving that I have in my office, but this one is different. When you look at it, the first thing you notice is Jesus embracing two children as he is sitting down. One child is cradled near his neck and likely a young toddler. The other is a young girl, perhaps no older than my own child, who is standing and brought in close to Jesus.

Of course, when you see the carving, your mind goes to the story in the Gospels when Jesus is confronted by his own disciples for welcoming children into his care. Children, in those days, were not to approach religious teachers until they reached a certain age, and a child approaching Jesus would have been unheard of and unacceptable. Jesus has other ideas, and says, “let the little children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14, NIV) Jesus is accepting and welcoming of children.

We know this. We celebrate it by singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Perhaps that might be all you think about if you looked at the carving. But beyond that, I’m drawn to Jesus’ arms when I look at it on the shelf.

His arms are embracing and welcoming, and they bring in those society has discarded as unwelcome. There is more to the carving, and perhaps more to Matthew 19:14, than just the idea of welcoming children to the church and making sure they are part of Sunday School, worship, and children’s activities.

I cannot help but think of how the same arms that lift up a toddler and a young child in a warm embrace, also bring in the least of these and the unwanted in our own time. Jesus’ words of welcome to the children are not limited to those who have yet to reach a certain age. It is also extended to the people who live upon society’s margins.

In Jesus’ time, you would be hard pressed to find just one group that lived on the margins. There were the poor who lived in the same communities Jesus traveled through, who barely had enough money to provide food for their families. There were the religious outcasts – women, Gentiles, and others – who were not allowed to worship with the entire community. There were people who were discounted simply for where they lived or what had occurred in their lives.

Each of these groups of people, Jesus routinely welcomed… to the consternation of both the religious elites and his own disciples. The embrace of Jesus is wide and welcoming to the very people society says “no” to including.

Our participation in the life of Christ calls us to have the same embracing attitude of society’s outcasts and undesirables as Jesus does. The embrace of Jesus calls us into society’s margins to share the love and hope of Christ to the least of these. It also calls us to go into places of power and privilege, to the communities that believe they have no need of the God of holy love, and to express the truth of God’s hope.

The call to live like Jesus is one that brings us into places we are not always comfortable with going. Our invitations of welcome and care, in the life of the church universal, are often limited to those we find acceptable and approachable. We are often more comfortable with reaching people who are “like us” and desire churches to be filled with only like-minded individuals. We do this to the detriment of true discipleship and the embrace of Jesus.

Living like Jesus takes us into areas where we might be uncomfortable and requires us to live with arms wide open. What often holds us back is our own fear of what may happen, our biases, and, ultimately, our own trepidation of truly living like Jesus. When we allow fear to consume us, our embrace is limited and our arms do not fling open as wide as we see Jesus’ arms do.

I cannot help but ponder how we might be called to reflect upon this as we approach Holy Week on Sunday. The message of Jesus’ death and resurrection cannot be just Good News for those who sit comfortably in the pews of the sanctuary. It must also be Good News for the poor, forgotten, and unwelcomed of society.

Perhaps as we go to the cross with Jesus, we need to contemplate how truly embracing the church, as a whole, can be towards those society does not accept. Perhaps we also need to contemplate our own contribution to those situations in our own limited welcome and embrace of others.

As we do, we need to consider the hope of the resurrection that announces God is doing something new in the world. Something new and amazing – not just for me. Something new and amazing – not just for you. Something new and amazing – not just for those who sit in the pews of the church. But truly, something new and amazing for the poor, the forgotten, the outcast, the shunned, and the unwelcome.

The hope of this season is that Jesus’ arms are flung wide open with love for everyone. We get to share that good news.

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Some Words about My Grandfather

Today, I had the privilege and honor to officiate my grandfather’s funeral. My grandfather, Papaw, passed away on July 28. We’ve known this day was coming, but it still does not make it easy.

As I have done on several other occasions, I was asked to officiate the service and offer a few words of reflection upon this man we miss so dearly. What follows after the jump is the homily from today’s funeral. I provide it for you so that you may get to know this man who will live on through the legacy that he leaves behind. Continue reading

The Freeh Report: Lessons for the Church in Protecting Children

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh, today, released the findings of an investigation looking into Penn State’s involvement in the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. The 267-page report, authorized by the school’s Board of Trustees, is lengthy in its descriptions of Sandusky’s abuse of children and how Penn State officials reacted when they learned of the abuse.

A comment early in the report sums up Freeh’s findings. There was a “total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child abuse victims.” According to the report, officials were more concerned about “bad publicity”  than properly addressing the issue. There was a culture surrounding the football program that prevented people from properly responding to Sandusky’s acts of abuse.

There was a clear lack of leadership and accountability at Penn State. Former President Graham Spainer, former Athletic Director Tim Curry, former Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Shultz, and the late former football coach Joe Paterno failed in their moral obligation to protect children and to provide a culture of accountability at Penn State. They were more interested in protecting a brand – Penn State – than caring for the “least of these.”

In a prepared statement, Freeh placed much of the blame on these four individuals.

Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curly never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest.

The Freeh Report will be further analyzed in the days to come. It should be a wake-up call to Penn State officials who failed to create a culture of accountability. Football and academic achievements mean little if children are unprotected and accountability is not valued.

Every organization that cares for children should take the findings found in the Freeh Report seriously. This includes the church. When there is a lack of accountability in place, we are not taking seriously are calling to love our neighbor as ourselves and to protect children. Creating a culture of accountability is crucial in our obligation to care for children.

There are some lessons for the church. For one, pastors and leaders must be held accountable. It is clear the football program was not held accountable at Penn State. This includes Paterno, who might have been the clearest example of a “cult of personality.” No matter who they are or their accomplishments, leaders must be held accountable. No one is outside the call of responsibility and accountability. Accountability is not about a lack of trust, but it is about protecting everyone involved. Pastors and leaders are included in this. We have power and influence in our churches, which can prevent some from holding us accountable. Church leaders must be held accountable. When we fail to hold leaders accountable, we are creating a culture where inappropriate activities can take place.

As well, churches should examine their culture. One of the striking findings in the Freeh Report was the culture that existed at Penn State. It is a culture that placed the football program on a pedestal. This kept staff members from reporting what they saw. Among those was a janitor, a Korean War veteran, who was fearful of reporting what he saw, because of the power Paterno had on campus. He feared for his job. This culture does not allow for honest and truthful dialogue. Transparency cannot exist when one group has so much power and influence. Churches must look at our culture. In our local congregations, do we have a culture that would allow for trust and truthful engagement of issues? Do we welcome transparency? Or, do we keep people from talking about their concerns for fear of “rocking the boat?”

Finally, church leaders must understand the proper reporting measures. The Freeh Report makes notes that Penn State officials did not consider proper reporting structures until after Sandusky was arrested. This is unacceptable. Proper reporting structures allow for the proper and quick reporting of alleged cases of abuse. Churches must have reporting structures in place and leaders must know what they are. Many churches have implemented Safe Sanctuaries, which is an effective tool for protecting children and church leaders. Not having a proper reporting structure is damaging to the body of Christ and our care for children.

The Freeh Report will have a lasting impact on Penn State. My hope is it will lead to a cultural change at Penn State. Unfortunately, these issues should have been addressed 14 years ago.

As leaders in the church, we have the opportunity to learn from the Penn State situation, think about our care for children, and make appropriate changes if needed. If we believe that children are important in the kingdom, we will be diligent in this effort and protect our children.