We have just concluded the Advent Fast. On the Eastern Orthodox calendar that we follow in Romania, it is 40 days of anticipation, austere eating and waiting that culminate in the joy, feasting and receiving at the Messiah’s nativity. As we progress liturgically through Christmastide and Epiphany, the theme of receptivity remains before us. Shepherds and Magi stand in contrast to innkeepers and Herod. Joseph struggles. Mary consents. Simeon and Anna rejoice. Yet, the common response to Jesus was not reception but rather rejection. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:11-12).
What does receptivity look like for us? It is a profound grace that we, mere creatures, are given the possibility to show hospitality to our Creator. Yet, the distractions and confusions easily inhibit our “well-coming” Him. Even when we manage to move beyond the gift exchanges, seasonal feasts and sparkling decor to contemplate God’s coming in flesh to creation, we can still domesticate receptivity. It may look like an imaginative act of cuddling the newborn baby or the inviting of the Christ Child into our hearts. While there may be value in these meditations and prayers, they tend to reduce “receiving Jesus” to “believing in Jesus” – and by “believing” we mean placing our faith in God. Unfortunately, “faith” for us usually means believing the right things in the right way or giving intellectual assent to that which cannot be proven. While these aspects might need to be integrated into faith, they do not do justice to the biblical picture of faith. There is something more, something richer.
Just as the Father gave the Son to be received, so Jesus tells us to receive a child (Matthew 18). Receiving a child doesn’t mean putting our faith in the child. It means recognizing, welcoming, protecting, and raising the child. Jesus says that we must do this if we want to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:2-5). This doesn’t mean that when we receive a child, we have a ticket to heaven. While the kingdom of God is much more than an eternal destination, it definitely does involve salvation (healthy life, peace, restoration, etc.). Connecting the receiving of a child with salvation may cause an allergic reaction in good Protestants, who pride themselves in grace alone and faith alone. But this is where we are invited to go deeper. Receiving the child that Jesus places in our midst is nothing less than a call to faith.
We have satisfied ourselves with cheap, fickle and superficial faith. Faith can be intellectual or emotional, but unless it is active, it is not faith. Faith cannot be separated from faithfulness. This is illuminated in a parallel text in Mathew 19. There a rich young man comes to Jesus, wanting to be assured of eternal life. The young man tells Jesus that he has kept the Torah. Jesus tells him that the one thing he must still do is to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. The rich young man couldn’t do this, so he walked away sad. Jesus invited him to faith, and this faith included eternal life. While we probably would have asked the young man to raise his hand, come to the altar, or to say a prayer, Jesus calls him to a faith-filled action: sell everything and provide for the poor. Thankfully for us, Jesus no longer talks like this. Or does He? We are inclined to stay safe in our self-made homes of faith and to convince ourselves that there we offer hospitality to Jesus. But if we risk being confronted by the God who says “Receive Me” and “When you receive this child, you receive Me,” then we will walk out into the daring and dangerous space of God where receiving means giving, life means dying, and salvation means caring for vulnerable. Faith in the kingdom of God means faithfulness. Without faithful actions, there is no faith.
To make sure that we get the message, Jesus also shows us the other side of the coin. When we don’t receive the child, when we despise or impede the child, we will suffer harsh judgment (Matthew 18:6-10). The consequences of our faithfulness are normally suffered by the vulnerable, little children. But God sees and God will act justly. In just a short section of the Gospel, it is all there: kingdom of God, salvation, judgment and the invitation to faith and discipleship.
This past summer we met Silvia. She lives in a crumbling house on the same street as our Community Center. Like many children in our neighborhood, Silvia is severely neglected. Both of her parents suffer from alcoholism. Her father is abusive. She has been raised more by her brother and sister than her parents. Silvia suffers from under-nutrition and a speech impediment. More than these physical detriments are the spiritual and emotional ones: her face, reveals fear, hurt and confusion.
In our community we are daily confronted by children like Silvia. We recognize her as “a child placed in our midst.” Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5). Just as with Jesus in the manger, so also with the pericopes of Jesus’ interaction with children: it is too easy for us to be moved by sentimentalism or romanticism. We think that we just need to get down on a knee and give the child a hug. But a hug for Silvia is at best insufficient and at worst inappropriate. What then does it mean to welcome such a child in Jesus’ name?
It means being-with Silvia. It means directing our attention to her. It means creating safe space for her. As we get to know Silvia, we are looking at helping her physical needs through doctors and dentists. We are supporting her schooling and exploring speech therapy. More delicately, we are relationships with her parents and siblings and asking ourselves what kind of community support we can help develop for their family to move in a healthier direction. We pray that our receiving is done well and done responsibly and that it affirms faith in Jesus.
Jesus places a child in our midst and invites us to faith in Him. Faith is faithfulness: receiving the child, loving sacrificially, giving everything away to care for the poor, taking up our cross, and following. Mysteriously, when we are attending to the salvation of the little ones, we are being saved. When we are receiving the child in the name of Jesus, we are being received as children of God. That is saving faith.
In part 1 of the post “Vulnerability, Children and the Image of God,” I outlined humanity’s imaging God through vulnerability and difference rather than through power. I follow Jensen’s book Graced Vulnerability. What I am attracted to in Jensen’s depiction of vulnerability as expression of image of God is that it speaks of a status rather than of an activity like rationality, dominion, etc. But this line of thought may be accused of begging the question unless we describe how humanity, as imago Dei, is distinguished from the rest of creation which also is marked by vulnerability and difference.
I don’t have a fully-worked-out answer to this. At the moment, this is where I am at: When thinking of human beings in the image of God, we usually have an individualistic framework. We can justify our individualism with Genesis 1 – God created humankind in God’s own image – and then finding in Genesis 2 a solitary man. But individualistic readings are subverted by the same text: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27). The image of God is a collective identity, not individualistic. If image of God is a collective, speaking of humanity rather than a solitary human being, then humanity’s representation of God is not the life of solitary individuals. This provides space for the exercise of rationale, stewarding, and multiplication without denying the image of God in those without abilities to rationalize, steward or multiply. What is more, is that understanding imago Dei as vulnerability means that rationale, stewardship and multiplication are directed towards and used on behalf of those that are most vulnerable.
So, along those lines, I’m thinking about image of God as an ontological designation. God designs/designates humanity as God’s image. It is who humanity is, not what humanity does. This would be compatible with some Orthodox theology that states that humanity participates in the material (animal) world and in the spiritual (angelic) world. That seems to me to be an ontology that is all-inclusive, especially of those so vulnerable that they do not have capacities to perceive or act on their own behalf. Yet, while the participation of humankind in the material and spiritual spheres differentiates humanity from the rest of creation, we are still placing too much weight on humanity’s distinction from the rest of creation. Rather, humanity as image of God must be based on correspondence to God. The correspondence is rooted in God’s designation of humanity as God’s image. The designation of humanity at Creation then leads us to Incarnation. God as human being affirms the divine correspondence with humanity (without dissolving divinity into humanity). And the glimpses of the revelation of God in the womb and of God on the cross affirm the ideas of image of God as vulnerability and difference. In Jesus we have the invitation to be fully human, imaging God through vulnerability, which is received more than achieved, as described in Philippians 2:5-11 – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” – without succumbing to the serpent’s and Babel’s grandiose temptations of power “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5).
This is an attractive notion of image of God in which humanity affirms and accepts this correspondence to God as a grace, designation and invitation. It also removes any ideas being gods in the world – ideas that have deluded the powerful throughout history and delude us today – and actually dehumanize and mar the image of God. Against the power-brokers: we image God by simply being, and we let God be God.
Baschet (Basket) is how we refer to basketball in Romania. In the summer I run a little clinic to teach the kids the basics. Then we play…even when it’s so cold outside that I would rather not.
This picture, drawn on a cold day better spent indoors, is a depiction by one of our kids of our time at play:
For the past 17 years, we have been building relationships with children living on the streets, children abandoned with HIV, children with disabilities, and children at risk of being trafficked. Our hope and prayer is that these vulnerable children will have a better future. But often, it is the children that inspire our hope and teach us to pray – and that by simply being vulnerable children.
When we speak about vulnerability, we think of the word’s Latin roots: the ability to be wounded. For children, vulnerability is the combination of present dangers and difficulties that they must face and cope with. Most often, we understand vulnerability as a challenge to be overcome or solved. While it is true that we need to protect children and reduce the threat of exploitation, we also need to understand vulnerability as a gift.
In actuality, this gift is one endowed by God to every child at creation. We are familiar with the text from Genesis:
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-27).
Although the concept of “image of God” is debated, there is general consensus around the idea that humanity in the image of God translates to humanity as God’s representative on earth. (That is why we are forbidden to make graven images because the image is already created and set in creation by God.) The question is: how does humanity represent God?
Usually, humanity’s likeness to God is understood as having rationality, the power to exert dominion, ethics, the capacity to love or – through Platonic influence – the having of an eternal soul. While all of these ideas may distinguish humanity from the rest of creation, they revolve around the abilities of human beings and, therefore, the most common understanding is power. Those that hold this opinion connect power with humanity’s ability to exert dominion over God’s creation. However, humanity’s representation of God through power has its problems. For example, from the creation narratives on through Genesis and the First Testament, we almost always find humanity’s power in negative terms. There is the fall and exile from Eden because they wanted to be like God; there is the construction of the temple-tower in Babel because they wanted to reach heaven; and there is the exploitation of other humans Egypt and later by the Israeli kings and temple. We also have before our eyes the real effects of human power today in the oppression of the power and ecological destruction through our consumer economies.
Rather than understanding humanity’s likeness to God through power or what humans can do, we are better to view likeness through vulnerability. God reveals God’s-self as vulnerable. God loves, which entails the risk of misunderstanding and rejection. The God of the cosmos enters into covenant with human beings, saying, “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people’ (Lev 26:12). God acts on behalf of the vulnerable by rescuing the Israelite slaves from Egypt. God takes the place of a slave by carrying the shade (in the form of a cloud) and the torch (a pillar of fire). The culmination of God’s Self-revelation is the incarnation, when the Son is conceived in a mother’s womb, is born in a stable, lives on the margins, and critiques power. The Son touches the excluded like children, diseased and sinners. The Son goes the way of a cross and is seen as the most vulnerable: a little lamb that appears slain. All of this doesn’t just tell us what God does. With God, there is no difference between acting and being. In fact, we begin to understand God’s being through God’s action. So, the vulnerability that we see through God’s actions open us up who God is.
If God reveals God’s-self through vulnerability and if we represent God through our vulnerability, rather than through our power, we can then affirm the image of God in children. Interpretations based on power and ability usually do not consider children, and if they do, they view children as lives anticipating adulthood – as if only adults can image God. In this way, children are either seen as less than human or almost human and only in a process of becoming. Viewing children as images of God affirms their vulnerability and also empowers them to be who they are as children. Moreover, by affirming children as the image of God, we also critique adults who, sometimes unwittingly, try to make children after their own images.
Children as image of God is developed further by Jesus who makes the intrinsic link between children and God’s kingdom. We learn from Jesus’ interaction with children:
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs (Mark 10:13-14).
In our proclamation the kingdom of God, we are invited to see children as participants – not because they prayed a certain prayer, but simply because they are children.
In our community we have had many babies born in the last year or two. In their infancy, and precisely in their vulnerability, they image God. One of the children, Abel, has been my icon at our Sunday worship services – a window through which I see God. When Abel was still in the womb, the doctors identified a developmental problem and recommended that the mother have an abortion. After much prayer and many conflicts with the doctors, the parents gave birth to Abel. The first weeks were touch in go with head swelling and many seizures, but Abel survived. Although he has low-level brain activity and still has seizures, Abel continues to live and to receive love and to give love. He is dependent at every moment on others for his survival. Abel represents God’s image. Abel belongs to God’s kingdom.
Abel and other children are vulnerable in their dependence on others and in their openness to others. We can affirm their vulnerability by caring for them (especially in a world that rejects them).
Jesus gives us a mandate to protect children: ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!” (Matt. 18:6).
Along with protecting children, we can affirm their vulnerability by receiving them (by accepting their uniqueness). Through our hospitality towards vulnerable children, we also receive God. ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Matt 18:5).
By recognizing the vulnerability of children, maybe we will more readily affirm our own vulnerability. And the gift of vulnerability that we see in children can become the gift of vulnerability that we are and that we offer by more faithfully imaging God in the world.
Again, the invitation of Jesus: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 18:3-4).
Developing life-skills is one of our major foci in working for better futures for the vulnerable youth at our Community Center. Although we literally have books filled with different levels of and lessons for life-skills, here is a short list of 30 life-skills and action-steps. We work on these in particular through our cognitive development exercises. While some of them may need some elucidation, most of them are self-explanatory.
|Life-skill: 1. Mental Picture
Action-step: I will consistently make use of my mental picture process
|16. Blur, Break, Recovery
I will be aware of the blur, break, and recovery process related to stress.
|2. Motor Match
I will perfect my motor match so that I can see, hear and move simultaneously.
|17. Stress Behavior
I will take responsibility for inward and outward tendencies under stress.
I will be trust the “warning light” within me.
|18. General to Specific
I will view all things as a whole, and then deal with the specific parts.
I will be aware of the processes involved in every learning experience.
I will be aware of the continuous changes in my environment and adapt.
I will set overall and intermediate goals.
I will evaluate all criticism.
I will deal with all life’s problems and still reach my goals.
I will value what I work for.
I will break any task down into small enough pieces to complete.
I will ask the questions: who, what, where, when, why and how.
I will project success in all my activities.
I will study my environment (work, school, home, etc.) and approach it successfully.
I will note my progress and give myself credit for my success.
I will project enthusiasm by correct use of energy and posture.
I will give and accept praise.
I will frequently ask myself, “Where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going?”
I will keep trying and I will succeed.
I will play by the rules to succeed.
I will master each step before proceeding to the next.
I will do what is right rather than what is convenient.
I will use stress to enhance my mental picture.
|28. Cause and Effect
Most of what happens to me is the result of my own decisions and actions.
I will take responsibility for my anger, fear, fatigue, etc. in order to achieve success.
I will appreciate others for who they are rather than what they can do for me.
I will always work to a success point before stopping and then enjoy my accomplishment.
I will understand how a person feels by observing his/her actions.
Whenever I teach these skills, I always discover deficiencies in my own skills for life. What about you? Are these skills you have and practice in your life?