Delivered at First Congregational Church, Bennington, VT
August 12, 2009
Patsy Cline’s song, Through the Eyes of a Child, comes to mind:
“If [we] could see the world
Through the eyes of a child
What a wonderful world this would be
There'd be no trouble and no strife
Just a big happy life
With a bluebird in every tree.”
It seems sometimes that in our hectic, frenzied world, a child’s essential simplicity, a child’s continual creations of a brand new world, could make all the difference.
Mark 10 says, “unless you receive the kingdom of God like a child you will not enter it.” It’s safe to say that the 11 year old me would not have had to think about this verse so hard. But it seems ever since arriving at adulthood, I’ve been contemplating this scripture. It’s been only in the past couple years that I’ve made real headway. With the help from Corey and my life as a father, I am beginning to understand more clearly what Jesus was saying.
What does it mean to receive like a child? The best way I answer this question is observing the child closest to me, my child Corey in action.
Corey, who is now two years old, began singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” a few months ago. The only decipherable words in Corey’s initial renditions were the words that sound like stars appear – “Twinkle, twinkle.” The “little star” part was not as decipherable yet.
We’ve all known that song ever since we were 2 years of age, haven’t we? My wife and I personally had been singing it with renewed appreciation to Corey ever since he was born.
Corey received that song, internalized it only like a child could. He did so every time we sang it, more than we realized. For some reason, of all the songs we sang and played for him, it was “Twinkle, Twinkle” that resonated most. When one day he suddenly broke out in the song, his first song, and Twinkle, twinkle flew from his lips, we were simply astounded, dumbfounded, and as happy as adults can be in a moment.
Corey sensed with his ears the simple tune Twinkle, Twinkle, and welcomed it into his heart and mind, allowing it to percolate and resonate. Out of this came song. With a child’s heart, ancient songs are new ones. The old is born again.
As the weeks have gone by, Corey has added more decipherable words to his rendition. He sings all the way through, with many words being rather clear. Like “Star” “Wonder” “Are” “World” “Diamond” “Sky” “Wonder”
As followers of Jesus’ way, which is the Way of the Child in more ways than one, we are to receive likewise. But how?
The easy answer is “practice.” You might practice for a day experiencing the world as if you were seeing it for the first time. Take on the mind and heart of a beginner, as every child is. Look again at nature as if it was completely new to you. Look deeply once more at the way the wind blows through the trees. Contemplate a second time the meaning of first snowflakes. Breathe in this season the scent of pine trees amid a forest. Partake of the twinkle, the wonder, the diamond-like brilliance of each moment. Look up at the stars shining bright for no ulterior motive at all, but simply to be and do likewise. These stars mirror the children around us.
An immediate thing we can do is simply sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, with renewed appreciation. In fact, Corey would love it if we sang it together…
In addition to practicing mindfulness in looking at the world anew, we receive the kingdom of God through the practice of humility. Matthew 18:3 says, “whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom.” An interesting observation, I think, is that children are not purposely humble. In a kid being a kid, there are no grand schemes or agendas. In them, we see no airs put on, no arrogance, no pride, no prejudice. There is no shame to their simplicity. They are content to aimlessly experience the simple gifts. They do not demand riches or fame…at least until they are teenagers. They simply demand our presence, our attention, our love.
Now, a child’s humility also involves their complete honesty. You know how children are. They naturally state the truth as they see it and do not hesitate to express what they need.
My son can be very adamant when he sees that his Dad is not really there with him or even when my play is not really playful but distracted appeasement. He lets me know with a whine, with a stomp of the foot, or eventually with finding something else to do, usually negative, sometimes destructive.
A child’s honesty comes out of the needs for attention, care and security. This sometimes appears selfish, doesn’t it? And indeed children can sometimes be selfish. But a point can be made that is to me revelatory.
We are often urged as Christians to be selfless and resist selfishness. Selflessness can certainly be positive, but it can also be dangerous, and children teach us this. They teach us a healthy selfishness. It is good to be adamant about fairness and justice. It is good to be adamant about everyone’s need for food, shelter, and clothing. It is often good to be personally adamant about what we need.
We should not be so selfless as to forget their needs in the pursuit of pleasing others – this is especially true for women who have been taught and conditioned to always be self-sacrificial. I’ve always appreciated the safety protocol introduced at the beginning of flights. The flight attendant says that in the case of the oxygen mask dropping, parents should place the mask on themselves first before doing it for their children. If we do not take care of ourselves, we sooner or later become useless to those who need us most. In other words, self-care and other-care are interdependent.
This healthy selfishness that children teach us about in the end is not selfish at all. It is a cry for the help of others, a cry that says I cannot make it alone, a cry that says I need you.
How is this related to humility, you may ask? Well, I think about another verb that best gets at what it means to humble oneself as a child. It is the verb “to be vulnerable.” I think Jesus is really saying to us, “be vulnerable like a child.”
On a recent occasion, Corey was playing around his swing, a baby swing that he was too big for. Despite frequent commands not to, Corey insisted on getting on the swing. On one occasion, he placed his stomach on the seat, his legs hanging, and he started swinging. The physics of weight distribution meant the swing kept going and he didn’t know how to stop it. Never experiencing swinging in this way, he felt vulnerable and scared. He began to cry. Of course, I was there to help.
See, there is nothing more humble or humbling than needing another’s help. This is especially true for us men who find it hard simply to ask for directions when we are lost. Voicing our vulnerabilities is extremely hard. Submitting to the fact that we all need and depend on each other is not so easy. But an essential part of humility is exactly that, vulnerability. They go together. And children embody both humility and vulnerability in action. Their natural humility derives from their vulnerability and their inclination to express it.
Now we come to Isaiah 11:6, which says, “And a little child shall lead them.” Traditionally, the child in Isaiah is interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus leading God’s kingdom.
I love Linus’ monologue in the Charlie Brown Christmas show. It always gets me. “You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” As Linus relayed to Charlie Brown, the babe Jesus’ mere presence led the shepherds to come and see the good news.
Jesus was leading even in the manger. He was simply present in the moment, taking the world in, and being a newborn –keenly observing his surroundings, namely those closest to him, voicing himself when needs arose, and allowing rest when weary. This is leadership at its best.
In my work as a hospice chaplain, I often notice how the presence of a child changes everything. I actually experienced this firsthand a few years ago. When my grandmother died, the family was naturally heartbroken and lost. We just lost the matriarch, the bedrock, the foundation of our family. At that time, my niece Gabrielle was around 2. She came to the hospital with her parents the day Grandma died. As we all sat in the waiting room, in the darkest of moments, Gabrielle, in her unaware way, was a light in that darkness. She did nothing special. She just acted as children do. She twirled around in her little white dress. She embraced her mother and father when she felt the need. She gave in to her whimsical world. In other words, she led as a child. She helped us to perceive the sad yet hopeful reality that even in death life still flourishes. Comings and goings, what’s new and what’s fading, what departs and what remains, go together. Gabrielle’s mere presence in that moment, clear proof that new life continues, led us through that difficult time, helping us to heal.
Gabriel, Gabrielle’s namesake, announced Jesus’ presence in Mary’s womb. Childlikeness, receptivity, humility and vulnerability – these things never left Jesus. The newborn in the manger continued into adulthood.
As Jesus contemplated the Father’s work in the world and in his heart, he was continuously born anew. I imagine the carpenter Jesus working with wood. To use William Blake’s words, I imagine Jesus seeing a world in each grain of wood he sanded. I imagine he experienced eternity in each of those sweat soaked hours. I imagine he saw heaven in the wild flowers he passed on his way home. I imagine him smiling as he held a neighbor’s baby in his arms, knowing he held Infinity. He pondered these things in his heart, like his mother did when he was in her womb.
Jesus lived and perfected the perfection of a newborn, the humility of a child, the accepting nature of a little one. In turn, he teaches us, urges us, to do the same. To sing Twinkle, twinkle, little star as if for the first time. To ask for help knowing making it alone is not possible. To cry at the sight of disparity and another’s pain. To see the world anew in every moment. To be “young at heart.” To imagine “the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, the cow feeding with the bear, their young lying down together, and the lion eating straw like the ox.” This is our hope and prayer.