I am not a parent, but I am increasingly aware of moments in life where children have been my wisdom teachers. Many years ago, I spent a month volunteering at an orphanage outside of Kampala, Uganda. The orphanage was a boarding school for children aged four through ten who had lost or been separated from their parents due to complications from HIV/AIDS. The global AIDS crisis hit Africa hard, wiping out the population of Uganda by more than a generation.
I once considered myself super awkward around children, but somehow, I managed to make connections with many of the students while I was at Kampala’s Destiny School. Maybe this was due in part to the afternoon soccer games the older kids occasionally coaxed me into playing with them. These blundering affairs showcased my absurd lack of athletic ability and never failed to elicit screams of sheer delight from everyone involved. What struck me was that so many of the children radiated pure joy. I went there expecting to find bleakness and misery. I found neither. I spent four weeks with one of the happiest and most loving communities I have ever known.
It is important not to minimize or romanticize the inequity, poverty, and hardship these children faced, but their reality was also much more than that. They clearly had something that because of my privilege I had lost or forgotten along the way.
Let me explain it like this. When I came home to Seattle, I saw rampant consumerism and greed as if for the first time, and it hit me like a suffocating, noxious wave. My experience in Uganda had reordered my priorities and restored, at a visceral level, a potent reminder that the world’s values are incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Almost twenty years on from my intensive formation at Destiny School, my young Ugandan wisdom teachers have not lost their reach nor their impact. Remembering them is a gift to how I understand Jesus’ message in today’s gospel reading. Mark tells us the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. They were clamoring for primacy according to the sinful priorities of empire and mammon. The disciples were fueling the consuming fire of “cravings…at war within [themselves],” to borrow James’ poignant insight in today’s second reading.
Jesus is having none of it. He sits down, grounding and re-orienting the moment, and tells the disciples that greatness means going to the back of the line. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he says. And then Jesus places a child among them to drive home his point. Mark adds a detail that shows us Jesus’ great tenderness; he takes up the child in his arms.
This isn’t saccharine, Precious Moments tenderness; it’s radical tenderness with the power to change the world. The disciples would have been confused by this because acknowledging and centering a child’s humanity was unheard of in the ancient world. Children were non-persons, property; totally devoid of social status or standing.
In recognizing that children have full humanity and priority in the Reign of God, Jesus is directly challenging the social pecking order of his day. He is instructing us to confront the world’s concern for power and greatness based on status, wealth, and achievement by uplifting those who have little or none. And Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
The line connecting the most vulnerable among us to God through Jesus is startlingly direct. The equation for what it means to love God by loving our neighbor is crystal clear. The time I spent in service and relationship in Uganda was a season of holy encounter. I have no doubt that I caught a glimpse of the shining face of God reflected in the children of Destiny School.
So how do we do this, right here, right now, today, tomorrow, and the day after that? Jesus’ invitation to radical, grace-filled greatness is not as immediately satisfying as worldly greatness. It can also come with great risk. The temptation to protect and advance the ego is as seductive today as it was in the first century, and if I’m honest, I recognize my own competitive urges in the disciples’ shallow self-promotion.
I’m struck by the fact that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was passing through Galilee because he was focused on teaching his disciples. Jesus places a high value on being in relationship with his followers and wants us all to know his truth. Both Mark and James recognize that sin distracts us from asking for what we truly need. Even so, scripture plainly entreats us to seek and talk to God directly.
What does it mean to ask for what we need, to be in relationship with Jesus, and strengthened by this, to practice servant leadership? James assures us that by drawing near to God, God draws near to us. Following Jesus begins with prayer. Living a life of Christ-centered, power-reversing, justice-seeking greatness is not something we will ever be able to muster on our own. Like the disciples, we must “sit down” with Jesus to be grounded and reoriented to each moment and encounter.
The action of sitting with Jesus is a powerful invitation to go deeper in prayer. My spiritual director encourages a practice whereby I imagine I’m sitting with Jesus and just having a conversation. Perhaps you’ve done this, but if not, you might try it sometime. What do you see, hear, say, feel?
What I find in such moments is that they make me honest, even childlike. And in this safe space for vulnerability, I am free to lay at Jesus’ feet my longing, frustration, and fear, as well as my joy, gratitude, and vocation to follow him.
We begin to discover that nurturing our relationship with Jesus through prayer fosters our desire and capacity for prayer, for service, for opposing injustice; for becoming our authentic selves in Christ. With Jesus, our ability to welcome and yield to something greater than the ego-centered self not only deepens; it becomes life-giving. Jesus repeatedly assures us that his upside-down way of greatness is also the path of transformation, of life. Being a follower of Jesus is challenging, but it is not meant to be onerous. Jesus doesn’t promise his Way is easy, but true liberation never is.
Dear siblings in Christ, I wonder, where is Jesus inviting you to give up your place in line in order to participate in the gospel promise of liberation?