Mini Episode – When Babies Are Sick: Strength in Vulnerability

Mini Episode – May 27, 2018

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Ainsley McNeeaney



That was John Helps reading this very short passage from the Gospel of Luke from the Okanagan in British Columbia.

I was wondering as I’ve been thinking about this passage over the past couple of weeks, what part of being a child are we supposed to welcoming here? In previous episodes, I’ve mentioned that I am a mother of two small boys.  Is it the snuggly toddler we’re supposed to welcome? Be like my curious six year old? Be like my three year old who screams when we have to leave the park. Be like my kindergartener who, now that he knows how to read, gives me a hard time about wearing Tuesday’s underwear on Saturday.

Speaking of Saturday and speaking of children… I am the first to admit that I am a Saturday night sermon writer.  Don’t get me wrong though – I’m not a slacker. I do a lot of thinking about what I want to say all week. It just takes me until Saturday to understand what is the most important nugget I wish to talk about for 15 minutes.  So far, this has been totally fine. A few late nights when hitting writer’s block, but never a crisis.

Jesus says to his friends that the least among them shall be the greatest – and in this example, “the least” equals a child.  

Well, children can be unpredictable.  And while my kids often surprise me at how robust they are, they are also fragile.  They are vulnerable.

Last weekend, I’d made big big plans to go to Stratford with my two little guys.  My mother lives in Stratford and we were all going to see The Music Man. My poor mother had been looking forward to this play for months.

We went to the play, but we didn’t end up seeing the whole thing.  We had to leave part way through, and our day ended with me needing to take Son #1 to the emergency room.  I was up with him all Saturday night – my poor little vulnerable guy. So tiny. In so much pain. So much confusion about what was going on.

I was up with him all night – then needed to preach and officiate a service in Toronto the next morning.

And I showed up without a sermon.  I knew what I had wanted to talk about but the intensity of the night before, and the fact that I hadn’t slept in 36 hours, made everything feel very raw and vulnerable.  I’m not experienced enough in worship leadership to feel comfortable just “winging it”. However, the fine people at Manor Road United Church were very gracious, and we had a nice sorta fireside chat about Living Presence Ministry, and about openness and vulnerability.

It seems odd, and it would have seemed odd at the time, for Jesus to suggest that there is greatness in vulnerability – he certainly didn’t live in a time when vulnerability was celebrated. He came from an agrarian society where weakness could mean destruction.  I could mean not being able to survive. And there is certainly nothing in our current political climate to indicate that vulnerability and openness are qualities in high demand.

Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.

But there is a distinct difference between being vulnerable and being weak.  Vulnerability actually enhances your ability to lead, by being able to relate to others who are experiencing struggle.  Openness and vulnerability allow others to see themselves in you. Weakness often comes from a complete lack of self-understanding.  Jesus knows that he’s not going to be around with the disciples forever. They are the ones who are going to need to take over the movement.  They are the ones who are going to need to lead, and love, and find their way into their people’s hearts.

It makes me think of one of the great theological and philosophical texts of our time…

Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Ethics of Living has been a key program with Living Presence Ministry.  It is a common text for kids of varying faith background – or no faith background – to come together and talk about what it means to live justly and with compassion in the world.

If you somehow haven’t read the series, or seen the movies…first of all, you should really do that.  It is a story of call, destiny, quest and purpose. And if you DO intend on reading the series, the next couple of minutes are going to contain some spoilers.  If that bothers you, skip ahead a bit.
So, at the beginning of the seventh and final book, each of the three main protagonists, Harry, Ron and Hermione, are sitting down, rather reluctantly, with the Minister of Magic, receiving items Dumbledore (their previous headmaster) had left for them in his will.

Hermione receives a book of children’s stories – the magical equivalent to Brothers Grimm fairy tales.  In order to fulfill her part of this quest, Hermione needs to learn openness to the wisdom in that which is childlike – a vulnerable space for one whose identity is wrapped up in knowing all answers.

Ron receives the deluminator – a way to navigate back to the others after he’s abandoned them – a vulnerable space of knowing he was wrong, and being open to the consequences and also to asking for forgiveness.

Harry receives the snitch from his first Quiddich game.  When he kisses it says, “I open at the close”. The close ends up being moments before his death – as vulnerable a time as there could ever be.  But Harry walks towards death and meets that which he fears openly. Knowing that his death will likely save the lives of others, Harry allows his vulnerability to be his and his people’s salvation.

Although J.K. Rowling is clear this story is not intended to reflect any one belief system, Rowling grew up within the Christian story, and the parallels are impossible to ignore.  Harry Potter is definitely a story of resurrection.

And it’s funny – although when the series came out there were many Christian groups who asked for the Harry Potter series to be removed from schools because it contained positive images of witches and wizards, I now deal with parents whose children would like to join our Harry Potter group, but won’t let them because I represent a Christian Ministry (even though we are only mentioning God or Jesus or Muhammed, or whatever, if the kids bring it up themselves).

I open at the close … only open in desperate times…at the end…

Depending on who you might speak with, the denomination I belong to, the United Church of Canada, is finding itself in some desperate times.  I’ve mentioned this before, but the United Church, like many mainline denominations, is going through a period where our numbers are declining.  And in this vulnerable time, the United Church is trying to figure out some ways to do church differently – to respond to the needs of our communities directly, and not necessarily tied to a church building.

In 2014, Toronto United Church Council carried out a demographic study and found that East Gwillimbury, and particularly the community of Queensville, is in the midst of an unprecedented level of population growth.  By 2031, East Gwillimbury’s population is set to rise to 87,000 people — a 300% increase from 2006 levels. Realizing the scope of this growth exceeded the local congregations’ ability to respond, Presbytery created the Living Presence Ministry with the intention for it to both strengthen the five area United Church congregations, as well as offer a new experience of faith and spirituality for members of the community who wouldn’t be attracted to traditional church, no matter what the inherited congregations offered.  A house was purchased within the My Queensville development, and this is the base for all of our ministry in the community – it is both my family’s home, and a community hub. I offer pastoral care for those in transition and crisis, keep a food pantry for those struggling to make ends meet and advocate on behalf of the new residents to Town Council and the School Board. We host community dinners to help facilitate connection. In addition to the Harry Potter group, we have started a special series of worship services centered around popular music, with services centred around the music of The Tragically Hip, Gordon Lightfoot, The Beatles and a Canadiana Folk liturgy during Advent last year.

Soon, we hope to host small gatherings for a weekly meditation and worship service.

Mostly though, when people in the community ask what I do, I tell them to think of me as a community chaplain – I’m there to make sure everybody is ok.  Living Presence in becoming deeply embedded within the community from its inception – in and with and among the people…striving to follow the examples of how to treat one another we hear Jesus describing elsewhere in the Gospels.  It is a ministry of presence…it is a ministry of openness…and there is vulnerability in that….because I often don’t know what the heck I’m doing. I’m learning as I go. This is a ministry of relationship.

I’m trying to embrace my children’s qualities of living in the moment and taking joy in the small victories here and now.

Part of this passage from Luke … and indeed many of Jesus’ interactions with the disciples…is the fact that they’re missing the point.  They’re asking all the wrong questions. Jesus is doing one giant face palm right now.  Part of my role with Living Presence, and how I approach faith and being in the world, is figuring out “what are the questions I should be asking right now”.   Much of the time, that’s simply “How can I help?”

So, last week, I sat before the folks at Manor Road in jeans and the previous day’s shirt.  Tonight, I’m reading this into my phone with my sick toddler sprawled across my lap, reminding myself that in his vulnerability, in his beautiful, messy childlike being, is the key to living our best, most connected, relational and loving life.
But I really hope he gets better soon…

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