The Gifts of Children

Preschool Covenant Renewal Day, October 11, 2015, Mark 10:13-16

Jesus was indignant. That’s a really strong word and it’s easy to overlook it. We think of Jesus as kind and loving and accepting. There are numerous stories of how he reached across cultural lines and showed interest and radical inclusion in ways that were shocking in his culture. Still, the only other time I can remember Jesus being something like indignant was when he saw money changers takin advantage of people who had come to the temple to worship. And people who were employed at the temple not observing appropriate behavior. On that occasion he made a whip out of cords and drove people out of the temple. In this morning’s lesson he’s merely indignant. And he’s indignant at his disciples, those closest to him, the inner circle, because they spoke sternly to the people who were bringing their children to touch him.

We studied this passage at last month’s Deacon and Session meetings. It is always a gift when people share their perspectives on scripture. We all bring our unique experiences and impressions to what we read and hear. In this case I was surprised at how hard it was for some of our elected leaders to accept these words.

“Let the children come to me…for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

Some people heard that and understood it to mean that adults are simply excluded to be in the kingdom of God. As though there is a cut off age and they were passed it.

Let me assure you, the stakes are high in this seemingly warm and fuzzy passage. Jesus goes on to say, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child will never enter it.”

Some understood this as a call from Jesus to be blindly trusting and completely obedient—as though asking questions or seeking to grow in understanding, were not what Jesus was commending in young children. They grew up in families—or know people who grew up in families in which “good” children were seen and not heard and did what they were told, without grumbling or questioning. To grow up—and to grow in faith—is to grow away from that sort of blind obedience and loyalty. I’m convinced that’s God’s desire for us as we grow in Christ is that we display the characteristics of young children—but which characteristics?

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes a slightly different point in a similar passage. “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 18:3-4, NRSV] In this case Jesus was responding to his disciples as they were discussing who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He told his disciples they had to change. They were grasping for status, when they should have given no heed to status and had the guileless ability to trust that they had a place in the kingdom of heaven.

What is it about children that Jesus is commending to us this morning? It is no mere coincidence that this is the lesson on the day when we will renew the covenant between the congregation and the preschool. For completely personal reasons I love the energy and excitement and wonder that the preschoolers bring through our doors every morning. Most of you don’t see this parade because we do not see the little ones on Sunday, but every weekday morning there is activity an noise and the spontaneity of children playing together. When I think about that term “the kingdom of God” that Jesus uses, sometimes I imagine a playground where kids are running and laughing and playing and completely, blindly, unaware of how beautiful and vulnerable and precious they are. Preschoolers have the ability to live in the moment that most of us have lost. Preschoolers also believer their eyes—and their eyes haven’t seen much in just a few years, so they are often confused and puzzled. A friend of mine who is professional magician says he loves performing for preschoolers. They believe in magic. Did you know that preschoolers laugh about 30 times more often than adults? And preschoolers do not necessarily laugh at anything. Just being three years old and living in the world is enough to make most of them laugh. When I was little I remember that “fun” and “funny” were really the same word. We lose something when we grow away from the ability to know the glee of a playground. Dan Fogelberg has some wonderful song lyrics that describe this growing away from childhood—“Your conscience awakes, and you see your mistakes, and you wish someone would buy your confessions.” We all lose the freshness and innocence of childhood. The sense of receptiveness and dependence.

Naturalist Rachel Carson is best known for writing “Silent Spring” the book that told the world that DDT was threatening the natural environment, especially song birds. But her book “The Sense of Wonder” about how she shared nature with her nephew from infancy on the coastline of Maine is a much more important book me personally. Carson writes

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.

Theologian Paul Ricouer coined a phrase that I find very helpful, in helping us understand, and accept and appreciate the gifts of children: “second naïveté.” We can’t return to childhood, and the way we understood the world at age four, but we can return to the feelings, the emotions of awe and wonder, and glee and trust that Jesus commends to his followers.

This week, for example, I’ve been struck by how beautiful the fall leaves are, and the vivid purple of the asters I’ve been noticing. Now I could say, “Well, the trees are pulling nutrients from their leaves and revealing the reds and yellows that have been there all along, as they begin to prepare to survive winter.” That’s all true, though a botanist might tinker with me wording a little.

But what’s also true is that this rational, explained and scientifically understood process is extraordinarily beautiful. You can’t unlearn a fact, but you can reacquaint yourself with the emotions, the feelings of love and security and glee and dependence and awe and wonder that you felt as a child. As Vietnamese poet Thich Naht Hanh wrote

      When you walk

        You might like to take

     The hand of a child.

        She will receive your

     Concentration and stability,

        And you will receive

     Her freshness and innocence.