To my son, on the day of your birth:
The most important thing you need to know is that people love you – some that you will know, and some without ever knowing you. Your Uncle Seth was so excited when he found out you were coming that he got online and immediately started shopping for baby clothes. Your aunt Addie started crying when we told her. Your aunts Stephanie and Christine both found out over the phone and across the Atlantic and have been dying to meet you ever since. Your grandparents have been praying for you since before your mom and I were even married. You were the size of a Lima bean and they were already in love with you.
And there are people that have loved you without ever having known you. Your ancestors have dreamed of the things you will grow up to be and do. And people who had never imagined you, loved you enough to set an example for you.
Your name, Daniel King Swihart, represents some of those people who have loved you. It represents our prayers for you, the way we aspire to raise you. But despite the chapter in Freakonomics you dad will tell you about someday, it remains your choice as to whom you will serve.
You stand in an impressive line of Daniels: “As God is my Judge”. Men who knew right from wrong and were willing to pass, as Rowan Williams calls it, the Polycarp Test. Polycarp was one of the first martyrs of the Christian faith, and (to spare you the details) was murdered because he chose faithfulness to God over the faithfulness of the Empire and the Emperor. When given the chance to renounce his faith, he made the decision to honor his creator and sustainer.
The fabled Daniel of the Old Testament, taken into exile in Babylon, was ever faithful to Yahweh in the face of constant temptations to the luxurious life of the king’s servants. For his defiant courage, he was routinely put in situations where he had to choose whom he would serve. He prayed everyday, despite an order to no longer pray in public. His friends were thrown in a fire and remained untouched. He was thrown in a den of hungry lions, only to remain safe in the arms of an angel sent to protect him.
Daniel Trocmè was likewise faithful, only less fortunate. Noted by his more famous cousin, pastor, and organizer of the non-violent resistance at Le Chambon, Andre Trocmè, as a “conscience without gaps,” he ran a refugee home for young children who were fleeing the Nazi death machine in Europe. Not a physically imposing man, his strength was found in his willingness to never stop doing the right thing, regardless of the consequences. He, of slight frame, was pulling a giant pot of stew up the hill for the children when the Gestapo raided his home. One of the boys under his moral tutelage had earlier rescued a German soldier – the very ones trying to eliminate them – from drowning, but it was not enough to curry favor with the feared secret police. As he and the house full of mostly Jewish orphans were loading the buses to the concentration camp, he was still more concerned about others than he was himself. Fearing the anguish of his parents, he asked that one of those who remained write them and “remind them how much he likes to travel.” He was later gassed and incinerated on April 4, 1944, in Maidanek in Poland. When Polycarp was burned at the stake, legend holds that the air filled with the smell of toast, and whether or not Daniel Trocmè himself was transubstantiated, his life has likewise fed many of us who remember his story as an act of worship. May his murderers remember the smell of toast from that evening.
Daniel Berrigan was a Jesuit priest before he became more famous for his peace activism. In an era when many lacked the moral imagination, he stood toe-to-toe with the machines of war and destruction. He reframed the Polycarp test in his own language, “If you are serious about Jesus, you had better start considering whether you’d look good on wood.” After spending time with those on the underbelly of society, he could no longer stay silent in the face of injustice. His fame (or infamy) grew when he and eight other clergy burned draft records outside of the local recruitment office with homemade napalm. While the pyre was raging, he apologized in jest for upsetting the orderlies, but refocused the conversation by juxtaposing that with the children he had seen burned at the hands of bombing attacks only months earlier. This action and his ensuing flight from prison landed him on the FBI’s most wanted list, the first priest to ever do so. The threat of this Magnificat-made-real makes the powerful do stupid things sometimes, but Daniel Berrigan wore his prison outfit as “the new vestments of the church in this age.” Through this apparently naïve hope, he was never without belief that all was tending, despite appearances, towards the resurrection. The same hope we all live in.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, was an icon that has stood for so many people in the last 60 years. He started out a brilliant minister, and soon realized that our heavenly allegiance demands participation in a new Kingdom. Dr. King was willing to follow the True King’s calling on his life, giving everything he was for the purposes of the other. He was tough-minded and tender-hearted, he sought “a faith that could transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy,” and foretold of his own assassination by reminding us that we have been “transformed by a savior so divine that even death was not too great a sacrifice.”
Finally, King is meant to remind us all that we serve a different King, and have citizenship in a different Kingdom. Ours sows love where there is hatred, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, abundance where there is scarcity. We are here for the business of reconciliation. We are the people who lament with empathy, hunger and thirst for justice, and make ways for peace to reign in our lives and communities. TR Glover said that we are a people who “out-think, out-live, and out-die everyone else.”
I don’t know how long our lives will overlap, but I am so blessed that they do for at least this day. It may seem but a still-frame in this feature-length movie, but more than the analysis of a moment, I want you to know that long story. Your mom and I, your aunties and uncles, your grandparents, and a long list of amazing people have come before you. You don’t exist in a vacuum. The reason you can see so far is that you stand on their shoulders.
One of my favorite liturgists, Nobel Winner Bob Dylan, wrote a special poem just for your birth.
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
. . . . . . .
May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
. . . . . . .
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
We will love you forever,
Mom and Dad