New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 23, 2018
On August 29, Rev. Traci Blackmon, our Executive Minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries, was one of the leaders of a protest at the southern border near Tucson, Arizona. She asked the question, “How are the children?” It’s a greeting used by the Maasai in Africa. If the children are well, then all is well. But we know the answer to that question is “The children are not well at all.”
Our children are not just vulnerable, they are at risk. 20% of children in this nation under the age of 18 live under the poverty level. They are at risk at school: the quality of their education, whether or not they have enough food, whether or not they have family support, whether or not they can use the bathroom they feel comfortable using, whether or not someone will show up with a gun.
They are at risk for being bullied, for not being accepted and loved as they are. They are at risk for being thrown out of their homes, for being homeless, vulnerable to human trafficking. They are at risk for physical, psychological, and sexual abuse and assault, for not being believed or taken seriously decades after the fact. They are at risk for anxiety and depression. They are at risk of incarceration. They are at risk because of bigoted immigration policies. They are at risk because of capitalism, greed, street violence, drugs, climate change, hunger, war. Traci said, “Our children are not well, and until the children are well, the whole world is sick.”
Most, if not all, salvation stories have children as agents of change, redemption and peace. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11: 6)
Today I wish to place a particular child in your midst. Her name is Pollyanna. Over the years I believe Pollyanna has gotten a bad rap. Her attitude of gladness is dismissed as naïveté, saccharin-sweetened optimism or just plain delusional. If you really want to know who Pollyanna is, forget Disney and Hayley Mills—read the book by Eleanor Porter.
The character Pollyanna was the child of a missionary minister who raised her by himself after his wife, her mother died. The two were dependent upon the mercy of God in the form of the Ladies’ Aid Society and their donations sent in barrels. Anything and everything could come to Pollyanna and her father in these barrels. It was like a grab bag from Goodwill or a church rummage sale. Sometimes there were useful yet damaged things, like a worn carpet or framed pictures with no glass. But what Pollyanna longed for was a doll to play with and love. So Pollyanna’s father wrote to those who supported his ministry with the request for a doll.
No dolls had been donated. What came instead was a pair of crutches. It was then that Pollyanna’s father taught her about the game—the Glad Game. The game is to find something about everything to be glad about. At first Pollyanna could not figure out how to be glad about a pair of crutches when what she really wanted was a doll. So her father gave her the first one of many ways Pollyanna could be glad: “Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—need—‘em!”
Yes, a pretty ableist story but this was 1913, well before the polio vaccine. Pollyanna thought it was a lovely game, and the harder it was to play, the more fun it was to think of reasons to be glad. But there were also times it was not fun, when it was too hard, like when a father dies and goes to heaven and there isn’t anyone but a Ladies’ Aid Society. Pollyanna discovered, though, that when you’re hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind.
Her father’s invention of this game began not with Pollyanna but with himself. Pollyanna asked her father once if he was glad he was a minister. He replied that he most always was, but he wouldn’t stay a minister a minute if it wasn’t for the rejoicing texts. These are the scriptures in the Bible that begin with “Be glad in the Lord” or “Rejoice greatly” or “Shout for joy”. Pollyanna’s father counted these texts and there were eight hundred of them. Her father then said to Pollyanna, “So if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, God must want us to do it—some.” Those texts then became a comfort to her father whenever things went wrong or not the way he wished they were or ought to be.
I wondered about that figure: eight hundred texts. So I went to my online bible browser, complete with concordance. Using the King James Version (remember it was published in 1913) I typed in the word ‘glad’: 180. ‘Happy’: 34. ‘Delight’: 94. ‘Joy’: 256. ‘Rejoice’: 275. All this adds up to 839 texts that tell us to be glad, happy, joyful, and to rejoice and experience delight. But I was still curious, so I searched some more. ‘Blessed’: 350. ‘Mercy’: 356. ‘Love’: 645.
As we care for children and young people, as we fight for their rights, their safety, their needs, their acceptance as persons in their own right, it’s important for us to remember what makes our hearts glad, and to do those things, experience those things, and not take them for granted. How is the child within each of us? When I asked folks on Facebook, what makes you glad, I received over 80 responses. Things like: “Quiet moments with my family.” “A day with nothing to do.” “Knowing I put a day to good use.” “When I remember to do something important.” “Carpooling to work with my husband.” “When I have enough money to pay for rent and groceries.” “An act of kindness.” “Having another day to try to get it right.”
Many folks commented about seeing or helping other people smile, especially family, friends, and children. Others talked about giving back in some way, being in nature, simple pleasures like holding hands, a good night’s sleep, a sunny day, music, and good health. One person said this: “I am facing the very serious illness of my partner. Things she used to do that would drive me crazy now make me glad because she is still here. Funny how it is all about your perspective.”
“Our children are not well, and until the children are well, the whole world is sick.” Our children are not well because we are not well, because in ways that deeply matter, we have forgotten what it means to be glad, what it means to experience delight, what it means to welcome God’s presence, to be in God’s presence, like basking in the sun; what it means to be a child, to be a child of God, and that every child is a child of God.
So play Pollyanna’s Glad Game every day. Ask the child within you what would make them glad. Ask a child or young person what makes them glad and then help them do that. Sponsor or mentor a child if you can. Spend more time in the company of children, especially the active, inquisitive, talkative, boisterous ones and the quiet, shy, removed ones. Do the Jesus thing and ask questions, ask what their pronouns are, and then listen, really listen. Because not only their lives but ours too actually depend on it.