This is the message I gave at Camas Friends Church, June 24, 2012.
“People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” (Mark 10:13–16 NRSV)
- What is hard for you to grasp about what Jesus says here?
- What is easy for you to grasp what Jesus says here?
- How do you think those around him would have responded when he said this?
- What do you think he meant by “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it?”
- Why do you think children hold such high esteem in Jesus understanding of spirituality?
The Little Prince
This morning, as you’ve guessed, I’d like to discuss children. Not my children per se, although I think I have been rather indulgent in the amount of stories about them I will use, but children in general and how our thinking about children might help our own understanding of spirituality and understanding of the good news.
But first, I’d like to read you a story.
[Read: The first couple of pages from the Little Prince]
- What did The Little Prince run into?
- When you were a kid did you ever run into something like this, this kind of feeling?
The Little Prince touches on something that, while certainly may not be true for everyone, does have a kind of accuracy to it.
- What is it about adults that keeps them from seeing that the drawing is more than a hat? Moving into a deeper truth about what was presented to them?
I think this is one of the basic questions that Jesus is getting at here in the Gospel of Mark.
In Mark 10 this is in effect what Jesus is encouraging his followers to do.
Mark 10:13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
In chapter 9 and 10 Jesus begins and ends his discussion on what it means to be last and first in the kingdom of God by drawing on the children in his midst.
“Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”” (Mark 9:33–37)
Instead of arguing about who would get to be the greatest, Jesus redirects their imaginations to a little child and addresses a far more important question. How can the KOG be received participated in? (Myers 267).
[Note on KOG: it is important here to recognize that when we hear “Kingdom of God” we are not talking about after-life, but about the inbreaking of what God is doing right now in the world].
And to answer this question, it says that “Jesus takes a little child” (I’m not sure if he had filled out the proper background checks and forms but I wouldn’t encourage you to try this on just any child, it’s probably a good idea to ask because you “just take a child”).
And he brings that child into the center of his teaching and in effect says, look and see, there is something of a deep truth that can be learned about the Kingdom of God from this little child.
What do you think Jesus might be saying? At least one way to read this is to see Jesus saying the kingdom of God belongs to the small, the weakest and the marginalized among us.
Ched Myers writes:
Why should not the child represent an actual class of exploited persons, as does every other subject of Jesus’ advocacy in Mark? The impure and the poor and the gentile are representations of real social marginalization; why not also the child? (Myers 268)
In other words, Jesus draws on the physical object of a child to say, if you want to understand what God is really up to you have to understand and look at this child who is literally the “least of these” among you. If you want to be first, you have to take on the status of this little baby.
Just as back then, in today’s times, Children are some of the weakest members among us. Alice Miller, a child psychologist, suggests that “Children are the primary victims of practices of domination within the family.” We constantly read about how children are victims of neglect, abuse, malnutrition, lack of love and care. So this is an example that still works in our time as well.
And yet Jesus says,
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
Okay, so maybe it’s just hyperbole. Maybe he doesn’t really mean it or maybe this is a metaphor for something else? Or, what if he really is serious? What can we learn from children that can help us “receive” the kingdom of God.
I want to consider what we might learn from what make Children special and how they might teach us — contribute to their being able to receive the Kingdom of God.
One of the aspects that, in my experience, I have had to learn being a father of three is that my kids force me to listen in a way that I have never had to learn prior. Kids often struggle to express themselves and so they require a patient and listening ear, not something that is part of my stock build. And long before they ever learned how to speak, even when they know no words, a parent learns that their children communicate with them.
I remember realizing for the first time when L. was an infant that she had about 5 different types of cries and we got pretty good at identifying which one was what one. C. is the same way. He currently has a cry for hunger, that is his most “lustful” cry, as Emily puts it. But he also has a cry for discomfort, whether from having a wet diaper or from needing to pass a little gas. He has a tired cry, and a “debating whether or not to fall asleep cry.” I’m not kidding. To the outside observer it may be hard to pick up which cry he is using to communicate, yet if we stop and listen and pay attention, we can usually make the right guess.
If we let them, children will force us to practice listening better because of their subtle ways of communicating.
And another observation: Listening helps to create a safe and trusting environment.
As you know kids will not speak unless they feel safe and trust the person they are talking too, but when they do, it is amazing what they will say. In this book by Rebecca Nye that we have been reading for “Soup and Bread” she writes:
In most situations, adults find it hard to inhibit the urge to talk in favour of listening to children. And this sending discouraging signals to that when we do ask for the children’s contribution, they can feel so conscious of their inability to express themselves with the authority the adult has modelled that they are unable to speak freely. In effect, all our talking may be ‘teaching’ them that they can’t speak about spirituality things, and that to do so requires expert knowledge and fluency. And yet, when given free rein, children can talk at length, and in depth, about most spiritual issues…
She encourages that we make sure to make a lengthy pause, such as 7 secs., after asking a child something so that they have time to think and respond in their own way. She also encourages people who work with children to focus on the feelings that are being communicated as much or more than the content that is given. Both are good rules of thumb.
So while it may be tempting to not really pay attention, to finish their sentences for them (because surely we know exactly what they are thinking) or to assume that just because they are little that a child’s doesn’t have anything to say about spirituality, we are invited instead to stop and listen and be open to the wonder that may pour forth.
2. Wonder and Mystery
And that leads to our second characteristic. Children can help to teach us about wonder and mystery.
One of the things we get from babies is the sheer brilliance of their existence. I was talking with someone the other day who doesn’t consider himself “religious,” but when he started talking about seeing his baby born he said “All I could think was, was…this is what God looks like.”
Any one who has ever walked into a hospital room just after a baby was born knows that while on the outside, it might look just like another maternity ward room, it really is as sacred a sanctuary that was ever made. There is a sheer wonder at the birth of a new child.
I liked the parable we read last week from Mark when it said “He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” (Mark 4:26–27 NRSV) There is something of a mystery and sheer wonder that is being communicated here. And this is in contrast to a lot of our modern society which is obsessed with answers, measurements, statistics and predictions. We want answers and we want them now! And yet the parable of the seed reminds us that there is a mystery to life and spirituality is an ellusive art.
We all know the story of the sunday school teacher who give the children a riddle: what has a bushy tail, eats nuts and lives in trees? The children responded hesitantly as though sensing a trap, “it sounds like a squirrel but we know that it has to be Jesus.”
If we worked out all of the mystery and wonder in our spiritual lives, then Children encourage us to to weave it back in. It is better to say I don’t know, or to sit and just wonder at what makes the leaves on the trees move from side to side then it is to give them stock-answers.
Yesterday, I came across a journal entry I wrote about some of the questions L. was asking me last summer: Why are some people old? Why do some people die? Why did God give me allergies? And just yesterday she asked: “Daddy, why is that woman black?” And you know how these conversations go — each answer is followed up by another, one word question…”Why?”
Isn’t that wonder and sense of mystery a beautiful thing (even if it can be a little tiring sometimes)? Have we as adults become too sure of how things work and what we believe? Are we too bored with the world? Have we allowed for all mystery to pass us by?
3. Imagination / Slant
And finally, a third feature we see in kids all the time is vibrant imagination. Kids have a perspective on things and are able to see things, that fresh and insightful.
For our girls, a swing becomes a rocket-ship as they shout “High to the Sky, Daddy!” A uncharacteristically high curb is their balance beam. The ramp onto a sidewalk for a little girl on a speeding bicycle feels just like a roller-coaster. Anything can be turned into a something to eat. Just yesterday, L. made me cookies out of rocks and herbs, she called them “Hot-Belly Cookies.”
And did you know that you can build busses, airplanes, slides, and tents all with just a few pillows and a blanket?
When I was a kid anytime our parents would leave me in charge, can you even believe it, I would roll out the video camera and we would make hours of silly home-movies. Today, if our girls are not playing dress-up, they are pretending to travel to ohio and fly on airplanes, or they are playing their favorite game “family.” My guess is you had a favorite imaginative game when you were little too.
[BTW Failure can be a good thing. For kids, the games you can come up with, the roles people can play, and what constitutes a “right answer” are far less bound than in the world of grown-ups. As Bob Dylan once sang, “There’s no success like failure.”]
Because kids use their imaginations, they can see things we don’t see. I often look at things head on, whereas things become far more interesting if you look at them indirectly or at a slant.
I remember one morning I had a conversation with L that went like this:
L: “Daddy, the moon is out already.”
Me, “What do you think it’s doing up so early?”
L: “Eating breakfast.”
To me, this is an example of the ability of a child to be able to access some basic truth in a way that a) isn’t afraid to get it wrong and b) comes at it from the side or at a slant. I would have never thought of the response Lily gave, but it added a whole new dimension to my own observation.
Emily Dickinson – Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
For Dickinson, Some truths can only be understood through our imaginations and an Indirect access or by “telling it slant,” otherwise we will be blind to it.
I think this is exactly what happens with the Little Prince and why the adults he showed his drawing too could never see it for what it really was. They constantly were looking at it head on, rather than with their imaginations and wonder.
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is elusive, not in that you have to be an absolutely perfect and law-abiding citizen to make it in, but actually because of the opposite. Very little about the kingdom of God, or the teachings of Jesus can be accessed without listening, wonder and imagination. It can’t be fully grasped by looking at head on and It truly is good news for the least of these.
Over the rest of the summer we are going to be looking at the parables of Jesus. These three “childlike” qualities are what we need to develop in order to have “ears to hear” and “eyes to see,” so that we can truly access and receive the kingdom of God in its many forms.
Parables Invite us into questions and wondering, they create space for us to listen because the answers are not quick or obvious, and they require that we get a little creative in order to understand them. I think it will be be fun.