Summary: Memorial service message for James M. Wright, volunteer for a Florida Shriners Hospital. Focus on the welcoming of children meaning the welcoming of Jesus.

Images cross our television screens, and we turn away instinctively. Photos jump out at us from the newspaper, and we quickly turn the page. Brochures from charities arrive in our mail, and almost automatically we pitch them in the recycle bin. All because the media continue to show pictures of children – hurting children, starving children, homeless children, injured children. And we cannot stand to see their suffering. It pains us, and, deeper than that, it indicts us. It makes us feel guilty to be reminded that the world is full of children who, through no fault of their own, are sick, deprived, or at risk. And so we turn away to stave off our own distress and to deny our responsibility to help them.

Not so James Wright. James Wright saw the hurting children of this world, and allowed their faces to touch him. He met the pain of children not with indifference, nor with guilt, but with a positive, caring response. He welcomed children into his life. Many of us could learn from that.

He had, of course, welcomed his own children. Most of us do, in one fashion or another, welcome our own children and take delight in watching them grow up. But James Wright was different. He did not just watch them grow up; he taught them how to grow up. He coached them in the art of living. Yes, he did the ordinary things that parents do – reprimanding, tutoring, correcting, guiding. But he also did the kinds of things that Barbara and Tim and Kathy have shared: he told them stories. He spun tall tales for their imagination. He prompted them to understand their world in fun-loving ways. Barbara tells me that when the family would go on the road up to Pennsylvania, her dad would point out the sign that said, “Watch for Falling Rock” and would stir their small souls with a a tale about an Indian Princess named Falling Rock who had disappeared, and everybody was supposed to keep their eyes peeled as they traveled. Who knows, you might see Princess Falling Rock? It may sound whimsical or even trivial, but it speaks of a man who really wanted to enter his children’s world and help their imaginations to roam. He welcomed his children and he welcomed their world.

But it is with the children who were diseased and damaged that Jim’s welcoming heart really became apparent. Maybe some of you do not know about the mission of the Shriners Hospitals. The fraternity operates a network of some 22 hospitals, all focused on children with special needs –

orthopedic problems, brittle bone disease, spina bifida, and the like; and some focus on burns patients. All the care at Shriners Hospitals is provided at absolutely no cost to the children’s families. It is truly a mission of mercy.

That mission grabbed Jim Wright’s heart. He served in the vital task of transporting children and their families to and from the hospital. It is not an average, every-day task. Great care has to be taken with a fragile child. The driver must be careful and compassionate. The driver must be more than someone behind a steering wheel; he must also be sensitive to what the child is feeling, not just physically, but also emotionally. Jim welcomed these children into his car and into his heart. Ellen tells me that he used to say that the only reward he needed for this work was to see the smiles on the faces of these kids. He noticed that never did they complain about anything; they were simply grateful that somebody was taking care of them. They found joy in knowing that they had been welcomed.

One day, the disciples were gathered around Jesus, soaking up his teaching, but, at the same time, jockeying for places of honor and prestige. Knowing what I know about other occasions in the Gospel story, I am pretty confident I know what lay behind the question they put to Him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?” Peter probably wanted Jesus to tell them that the boldest and the brashest was the greatest. James and John were likely doing a little brotherly infighting, pushing each other for seats on the right hand or the left. I can even imagine one Judas, the keeper of the company purse, thinking that the Golden Rule might apply here – you know, the golden rule – the one who has the gold, rules! So few of us have a servant heart! So few of us want to accept the responsibility that comes along with greatness!

But Jesus turned the tables on them all. Jesus reached out into the crowd that hovered nearby, and found a small child. Jesus put that child out in the middle of the huddle, where everyone could see, and challenged them to their cores: “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.” Become like children? What is He talking about? Become silly and goofy, naïve and ignorant? What do you mean, Jesus, that we must change and become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven?

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