Summary: Children are defenseless and it is up to us to seek justice for them

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:14-15, 21-24

We live in a society which “fixes” one crisis of problems after another; yet, to borrow from the political slogan barrel, are we any better off today? Are we as the man who ran from a lion only to encounter a bear – who fled to the safety of his own home, leaned against his “safe” wall and got snake-bit? Are we just jumping out of one frying pan into another fire?

The current environment in which American families raise their children causes me to tremble when I consider answering those questions. Instead of justice rolling down like the waters of an ever-flowing stream, it is more like a stagnant little mud-puddle.

And we’re not the first culture with that problem. Amos was a simple shepherd. God called him out of a little village called Tekoa in the mountains of southern Judea to go preach to the northern cities of Israel. (Amos was a good ol’ boy sent up north to preach to the Yankees!)

News traveled slowly back then. Who knows how much Amos knew of Samaria, Jerusalem and Damascus, even as he journeyed to the north on his mission? It didn’t take him long to find out, however. A simple man, Amos had spent his life in the hills, raising sheep. His days were all about protecting sheep from wolves and other predators. He could recognize danger. A simple man can see injustice – and Amos saw clearly; Amos saw the human predators:

•At Damascus Amos saw God’s own people buying and selling each other at slavery auctions (Amos 1:3-9).

•He saw brothers killing each other in Edom (Amos 1:11-12).

•He saw children in Ammon ripped from mother’s wombs (Amos 1:13).

•He saw in Judah pagan worship rituals among people who were supposed to be God’s own (Amos 2:4).

•He saw oppression of the poor and sexual perversion in Israel (Amos 2:6-7).

Amos saw then and there, what we see now in America! It is hard to deny that we live in a land where the tide has turned from a safe-haven for Godliness and moral living to seeing the worst humanity has to offer. These past few weeks following the New Orleans flooding we have seen heroism, and people stepping-up to help out their neighbors; we have seen far more of the other – looting, crimes against women and children. We have seen the depravity of humankind on display in full color, covered live on CNN.

Amos couldn’t believe his eyes; in the midst of all the flagrant sinning, the total disregarding of God’s commands, the people of Israel were still holding their worship services and rituals…and God said through the prophet, I cannot stand what I see…it doesn’t matter how many prayers you send up here…I’m not having any of it…you get your lives straightened out, and do it now!

It is amazing how the people were going to worship, praying, and counting on God to answer and provide for them, all the while not giving the slightest attention to doing right, or being obedient. Things have not changed!

God was not amused in Amos’ day, and He still isn’t. In so many ways the people to whom Amos preached were the stereotypical “Sunday-morning Christians”. They were out hustling in the world during the week, cheating on the stock market, short-changing an employer, embezzling like an EnRon specialist from 9 to 5. After hours and on Saturday nights they populated the bars, brothels and honky tonks. Come Sunday morning they were filling the pews at 11am, smiling and “Amen-ing” with the best of ‘em. If ever a house-cleaning was needed; it is no wonder God wanted justice to roll-down like a Tsunami over that bunch…and maybe over America as well.

Are We Better Than That?

The question in American culture…in Randolph County…in Bethany United Methodist Church is: Are we better than that?

Where are we today in terms of the way we treat the weakest and least protected of our society? Amos’ whole ministry was consumed with passion for the underdog, those who had little power. In our day it is the little ones, children. How are we doing with caring for the children?

If we took the time to hear all the statistics published by the Children’s Defense Fund these past 14 years of sponsoring Children’s Sabbath days it would fill many hours, sad hours. Some of the staggering numbers in America, one of the most advanced health-care and economically-sound cultures in the history of humankind:

•4 children are killed by neglect or abuse every day.

•5 children or teens commit suicide every day.

•548 children are arrested for either violent crimes or drug abuse every day.

•2,539 high school students drop out every day.

•17,072 public school students are suspended every day.

The theme of Children’s Sabbath Day is to Put our faith into action to seek justice for children. Amos hit the nail on the head when he called for God’s people to seek the kind of justice that rolls over those kinds of statistics about neglected and abused children like the great Niagara Falls.

How Did We Get to This Stage?

Tracking the causes (otherwise known as “playing the blame game”) is difficult. But I would like to give what I believe are several patterns that are illustrative of moving away from justice…something God’s people cannot ignore. These three patterns have poverty at the core, but, like the age-old “chicken and egg” routine, it is hard to identify if the pattern caused poverty or poverty the pattern. In any event, we have chickens (poverty) and eggs (patterns); we can begin to make some dinner either way.

Pattern #1. Healthcare Dilemma

The spiral against the poor in healthcare can’t be over-exaggerated. So many people are without access to quality healthcare due to the unmanageable costs. The spiral begins with technology advances. As new and better treatments are developed for disease and fighting the effects of advancing age, the healthcare industry produces more technology and pharmacological approaches to treatment, cure and prevention.

New technology always presupposes research costs which result in patents and marketing! The poor (by definition) cannot participate, except to be guinea pigs in study groups. Result: the children suffer.

Pattern #2. Judicial System Dilemma

It has long been axiomatic that the judicial system in America is slanted against minorities, especially the poor. Now, poverty isn’t sinful. Jesus said so! Prosperity preachers these days tell you you’re a pretty poor excuse for a Christian if you’re not prospering (getting rich like them)! Jesus picked the poor widow woman who gave all she had, and called her a spiritual giant. Poor isn’t wrong!

No, poverty isn’t sinful, but it can leave a person without dignity. Often people turn to crime because our system of caring for the poor dehumanizes people and robs them of making a worthwhile contribution to society.

I know you do not have to turn to crime, but so often the temptation is great, and many fall victim to the lure of getting out of the hole. When you have no purpose, getting out becomes your purpose…any way you can!

Now, adults who turn to crime make that choice of their God-given free will, and they’re also accountable to God and society for their actions; they also choose to harm their children when they go to jail. Result: the children suffer.

Pattern #3. Legislative Dilemma

Our legislative bodies pass laws and enact programs that are intended to cure our society’s ills. Often it is a band aide on a cancerous tumor; it may look good, but there is no real help. This past month our legislators put a band aide on the cancer eating away at the quality of education in North Carolina. They paved the way for North Carolina’s first public lottery. The “selling-point” was that the money a lottery will bring in is needed for education.

Now, it remains to be seen if they will actually spend the money on education, and still continue to fund education with tax money as well so that education is actually enhanced. If they do what they did in Florida – funnel in the lotto receipts, but de-fund the education budget from the tax side – you will not have education enhancement…just a regressive lottery tax.

What we will get, regardless of how they handle the tax situation, is more crime (which always accompanies gambling), more taxes to pay for more law enforcement, and a higher incidence of gambling addictions, and the resultant poverty from losses and family breakups.

Experience in several states has shown that lottery gambling is always heaviest in segments of society which can least afford it. Anything that promises great wealth as if it is actually a possibility for most people – yet has odds of 10 or 20 million to one, is dealing in false hope.

In California a grocery chain carefully surveyed its receipts after installing lottery sales. Their lottery take was over one million dollars. But their food sales went down by exactly the same amount. The game literally takes the food out of poor mouths.

Proverbs 22:16 tells us that a person that gets ahead by oppressing the poor is doing wrong….and will pay the consequences.

You cannot deny that gambling is intentionally directed at the poor. Prove it, you say? If you analyze the distribution of ticket sales outlets for the Florida lottery, it tells the story. In upper class neighborhoods the outlets average one for every 17,000 people. By contrast, in the poorest parts of towns the average is one outlet for every 1,900 people – 10 to 1 in poor neighborhoods. Folks, they don’t put lottery outlets where they’re not going to sell lottery tickets; they’re out to make money – yours! And poor people fall for the “get rich” theme in a lottery!

Now, the problem with all of this is that when households experience gambling losses, addictions, higher crime and taxes, it is the children who suffer. When I served as a Pastor in Florida I visited one family to deliver some groceries our church had bought for those in need. As I pulled up in the front yard a young girl, perhaps 11 was watching her two younger siblings. She told me her Daddy wasn’t home. I put the groceries on the front porch and she looked in the bag. She looked up at me and said a thank you, then told me she’d better get the bag inside. She said as she picked-up the groceries, “If Daddy gets home before I get it all hid he’ll just sell it to get more tickets.” Result when adults gamble: children suffer.

And So What Should We Do?

There is only one Godly response to that question – a commitment, or renewal of a previous commitment to live a lifestyle of seeking justice for children. Among Africa’s tribal peoples one culture stands strong and proud – the Masai. Masai know that the basis for their culture is bound up in their children, their future. A typical greeting among Masai people is “kasserian ingera”….how are the children Even Masai warriors, some of the fiercest soldiers on earth, greet each other with kasserian ingera…how are the children? There is a good place to begin…ask yourself, kasserian ingera…what is the state of the children?

There are some concrete ways you can begin to participate in changing the answer to the question in our country, How are the children?

•Make Safety a Priority Our church is committed to the Safe Sanctuary approach. Everyone who works with children submits to a background criminal check. I recently did a search of a middle-class neighborhood with little reputation for crime – 27 sex-offenders lived there. Children are suffering; children must be protected.

•Get Involved Bishop McClesky of the Western NC Conference, and Bishop Gwinn of the NC Conference have joined hands with United Methodists across the state to march on Raleigh’s capitol June 20, 2006 to raise awareness of government and children alike as to the impact Raleigh has on children, and the way it can be for children to impact the government in Raleigh. You can help. Children are suffering. We can get involved.

•Support Those Making a Difference Lynn Groce was a missionary to Ethiopia. When his child became too ill for them to stay on the mission field, they moved to Gainesville, Florida. Lynn wanted to make a difference. He started bringing churches together with people who needed a helping hand out of poverty. He partnered successful plumbers, electricians and many others with men who had no employable skills, but wanted to work. The program saw many fathers get off the Welfare rolls and keep their families together. Children stop suffering when families are helped.

•Don’t Assume All the Suffering is “OUT THERE”

If your home is relatively middle class and generally happy, you could imagine you are not part of the problem. A good thing to do is make certain you do not add to the problem.

It starts with discipline at home. Some of the problems we are seeing about the abuse and neglect of children is (at least) due to a poor concept of discipline in the home. When parents do not discipline their children as God has commanded us to do, children grow up without an appropriate balance of self-worth and sense of responsibility. In short, spoiled children make lousy citizens. It’s because they will not do what they do not want to do, because their parents let them do anything they wanted to do.

An example:

When Elizabeth and I decided to adopt a child back in early 1979 we also opened our home to foster children. Vicki was a beautiful little child of Mexican heritage. Vicki and her mother were living in an old two-door Dodge. The Mom had followed the trail of indigent labor jobs from Texas to Florida. Her luck ran out, and she had no money and a three year-old to feed. She had no street address, so the Florida Welfare system refused her plea for food stamps. Frustrated, the Mom parked Vicki on the social worker’s desk and said, Fine…YOU feed her! She turned and walked-out.

From the first it was obvious Vicki had no discipline, no boundaries. She was pleasant and loveable, but totally unmanageable. She also hated green beans. But, she did come to the point of realizing that the adults were in charge, and she began to want to fit in.

At the supper table one night Vicki was told to eat the few green beans we had put on her plate. She got stubborn, so we told her she could sit there until she finished them. A few hours later she was still sitting there. She wouldn’t even taste them. Finally, I got her to eat one. She despised the taste. Her face contorted into a grimace like she had bitten into a lemon. I asked, “What’s wrong?” With tears in her eyes, a mouth turned upside-down, chest heaving in sobs, the little girl looked me in straight in the face and said, I…..I…..I Yike da greenbean tings.

Well, we realized green beans were never going to be a hit with Vickie, so we never pushed them after that. But Vickie had learned to do something she didn’t want to do. She was eventually reunited with her mother, but the lesson stays with me….and I’m sure, her…children must be made, sometimes over their objections, to conform their will to what the adults know is acceptable behavior…and the parents must not ever entertain the notion that it is the other way around. In nature, and in parenting, the tail never wags the dog.

Worst neglect, abuse, transgression of justice for children is neglect of training them up in the way they should go….

How are the children?