(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Please click here to listen to the message. Please see below to read it.
Like most of the parents here probably believe, having and raising children are the most rewarding experiences of life – but also the most challenging! My daughters and I now laugh about their teenage years when they were often furious with me for how I sometimes embarrassed them with uncool dad things I’d say or do in front of their friends. Or when I set seemingly unreasonable curfews. And there were times when I was mad at them – and told them, “I will always love you – but right now I don’t like you very much!”
But most of all, as a parent, I think of how rich my life is because of my girls. I remember as if it was yesterday when they were born. Childbirth is a miracle repeated thousands of times every day around the world – and yet each birth is simply astounding. A little human emerges dazed and blinking at bright lights and loud sounds. The infant is so small, so helpless – and so beautiful.
I sat down soon after each of my girls were born and wrote them letters that I shared with them when they were young adults. I wanted them to know how honored I felt to be their dad – and what a gift they were to me and their mom. That feeling I had so many years ago at their birth has not changed. I look at them now and still see human miracles – beautiful women who are now married and doing great things in the world.
And so the song Michael just sang, “Mary Did You Know?” is one of my holiday favorites. It expresses several Christian beliefs I don’t hold, but the melody and overall lyrics affect me. Parents everywhere look at their newborn child and wonder what is ahead. What ways will she or he love others? What joys will this child experience? How will the world be changed for the better because this infant, this miracle of life, was born?
For Mary, she could not know her son would grow to be as great as he was. I don’t believe Jesus was literally God – but I do believe, from numerous historical pieces of evidence, that he did live – and he did teach wonderful values. Indeed, his teachings have affected history perhaps more than any other person. He remains today an exemplar of compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and love. When we think of those ideals, we think of him.
But as the song asks, did Mary know he would one day teach and practice such goodness? We cannot know what she thought, but I imagine Mary had an implicit trust her son would be great – primarily because she must have been a deeply good woman. Few children are born to be great. Instead, they become great due to multiple influences – but the foremost of them is because the parents modeled goodness to their children. Mary’s simple life of poverty created in Jesus empathy for people who live on the margins. Her humility and gentleness taught him to be the same. Her inward shame for conceiving out of wedlock influenced his understanding of human weakness – and the vital importance to forgive.
The influence that a parent, particularly a mother, has on a child is often profound. My daughters are versions of their amazing mom, just I am fortunate to be the product of my mom, who significantly shaped who I am today.
I recently read about the real life story of a man named Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. A documentary narrated by Oprah Winfrey has been made about his life. He was born in the African nation of Ghana to very poor parents. He was also born with one severely deformed leg – one that could not be used. In Ghanian culture, a deformed child is seen as a curse and punishment upon the mother who, it is believed, caused the deformity by past sin. Because of that belief, Emmanuel’s father abandoned his family soon after his son’s birth.
But Emmanuel’s mother did not abandon her other-abled son. She loved him all the more. She encouraged him as a child to adapt and overcome his disability – by getting an education. At first, she carried him two miles to school every day. Later, she taught him how to hop on one leg – and so thereafter Emmanuel hopped two miles to, and two miles from his school.
At age 13, his mother became very ill and he was forced to quit school to support her. Most other-abled persons in Ghana were beggars but Emmanuel was determined to work – and so be began shining shoes, earning $2 a day. When his mother passed, he resolved to not be stuck as a shoe shiner but to learn to ride a bike and be a delivery person. He strapped his good foot into a pedal and thereby rode a bike and delivered packages.
After a doctor told Emmanuel about the US charity Challenged Athletes Foundation, he filled out a grant application for money to buy a better bike. He received $1000 from the organization. And with a new bike, he set out to raise funds to help other-abled people of Ghana by riding his bike across the 400 mile width of that nation. His ride and inspirational talks attracted world-wide attention. Nobody had ever seen someone ride a bike with one leg. The Challenged Athletes Foundation invited him to California to participate in a bike race. He did so and finished the 56 mile course in 7 hours.
The foundation also arranged for Emmanuel to have surgery on his deformed leg so that it could be fitted with a prosthesis. With it, he was then able to walk, run, swim and bike using two legs. He began regularly competing in triathlons as a way to raise awareness, and money, for other-abled persons. He received an award for the Most Inspirational Athlete of the Year in 2003 and later was given the prestigious Casey Martin award to an exceptional athlete who has overcome physical, mental or cultural challenges. Today, he is a worldwide ambassador and fundraiser for the other-abled.
And all of that is due, Emmanuel says, to the influence of his mother who died when he was still young. Her love, her sacrifice for him, and her persistent encouragement that he learn, grow, and overcome his disability instilled in him the values he now lives by – and shares with the world. “She gave me the idea that I could go to school and become a great man,” he told Sports Illustrated.
To the kids and young people here this evening, I hope you know the love your parents have for you. For all the ways they annoy you or force you to do things you think are just awful, please understand they do so because they see greatness in you. You are someone who will grow up to do awesome things for the world.
For each of us adults, whether we are a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle – or not, I trust we sense the tremendous privilege we each have to help shape a child’s life – not just by what we teach or say, but by how we lead our lives. In that way, this congregation of parents and non-parents are models to the community – and more importantly to our youth. All of you adults model to our youth how to be compassionate, kind and generous.
Like Mary, we can never know exactly who a young person will grow up to be. But we can know youth look to us and our actions. If we are true to our ideals, if we walk our talk, if we endeavor to be encouragers and activists, we will know our children, and the children of this city, will one day give sight to the blind, enable the lame to leap, and help heal the nations.
I wish all of you a Christmas of peace and joy!
(Go change into Santa outfit!)