I just met you last night, three days old, dark hair, cute as a button, looking very much like your six-year-old brother, Ezra. I’ve been pondering the fact that you were born on Maundy Thursday evening, just as we were finishing a worship service at our church.
We do have a bit of a tradition in our family of birthdays falling on holidays. Your great-grandfather was born on New Year’s Day, your grandmother (me) was born on Thanksgiving, your mommy’s sister was born on Valentine’s Day, and you were born on the day that our Lord Jesus celebrated a last meal with his disciples, knowing that he was going to die the next day.
Because your mother is Christian and your father is Jewish, you are doubly blessed! Passover started on the evening of Friday, April 3, just a day after your birth, and ends on Saturday, April 11. What joy both sides of your family celebrate in knowing that you have arrived safely into the world.
Your mother and father have chosen River Axel as your name. It’s a strong name that may define who you will become as you grow and mature over the years. I associate the word “river” with life because flowing water is the source of human existence and growth in our world. I am reminded of John 4, where the Samaritan woman asks Jesus where she can get living water and he replies, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
In similar fashion, there is a ritual on the first day of Rosh Hashanah after the afternoon prayer where Jews sometimes go to a lake, river or sea and recite the Tashlich prayers. In these prayers, Jews symbolically toss pieces of bread or another food into a river of flowing water as a symbol of casting away their sins. By leaving their old shortcomings behind, they start the new year with a clean slate.
Your middle name, Axel, is a popular Scandinavian and German name, which is derived from the Hebrew name Absalom, who was one of King David’s sons. The word ‘abshālōm means “the father is peace” or “the father of peace.” I pray, River Axel, that you will always be a person of shalom, someone who experiences fullness of life by living out your call as God’s precious child and chosen one.
I can’t help but wonder at how fortunate you are. You have been born into a stable family with parents who will love, nurture and protect you. You have an older brother who already adores you and can’t wait to guide you through your childhood. I wonder if you will adopt his interest in baseball, karate, golf, math and cooking or whether you will go off in a different direction.
You have great-grandparents who will pray for you. Your grandparents, aunts and uncles don’t live nearby, but trust me. They will be an important part of your life, doting on you, teaching you, having fun with you, and helping you along your life’s journey.
As I look into your eyes and marvel at your perfect little body, I thank God, but I also realize that most of the children in our world do not have the same advantages you have. In fact, they are at great risk. More than one million babies die every year on the day of their birth, according to the latest UNICEF statistics. Close to two million babies die every year in the first week of life. The number of under-five deaths was cut in half between 1990 to 2013 from 12.7 to 6.3 million a year. Still, 17,000 children under five years of age die every day.
According to the National Center for Children and Poverty, more than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, which is $24,250 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children in our country live in low-income families.
Poverty can negatively affect children’s ability to learn. It contributes to poor physical and mental health as well as social, emotional and behavioral problems. Poverty can also lead to various forms of abuse. Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being.
If that weren’t enough, according to the U.S. government, 600,000 to 800,000 women, children and men are bought and sold across international borders every year and exploited for forced labor, organ trafficking or commercial sex. In 2012 the (UNODC) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the percentage of child victims had risen in a three-year span from 20% to 27%. Of every three child victims, two are girls and one is a boy. When international trafficking victims are added to the estimates, the number of victims annually is in the range of two to four million. 50% of those victims are estimated to be children.
I know you aren’t interested in any of those statistics right now, River. Your only concern is that your mother stay close to feed you when you are hungry.
Whenever I get a chance, I check you over. Your face, your fingerprints, your footprints and your brain are unique. No one will ever be exactly like you, River Axel. While your family can’t change your physical characteristics, we hope that we can mold and shape your character. I promise to teach you:
- How to be tolerant of others who are not like you.
- To respect yourself and others at all times.
- The importance of giving, not taking. God calls you to share your abundance with other.
- That each person in this world has a responsibility to make it a better world for all.
To be a seeker, always learning, always growing, always loving with reckless abandon.
- To find your passion and use it to change the world.
I keep thinking back to the night of your birth, Maundy Thursday. Do you know what Jesus taught his disciples that night? In John 13:34-35, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
If there is one thing I hope your family can teach you, it’s how to love not just those who love you but everyone in this world. I’ve also learned over many years that I can’t love alone. I’m not strong enough or good enough or committed enough. That’s why both sides of your family are part of a faith community. It’s the community of faith that instructs, encourages and empowers children, youth and old people like me to change the world.
It’s a big job, River. But with love of God that is already flowing in you and with your middle name reminding you every day that you are a person of peace, we can do it together. I just hope I can keep up with you!