A few weeks ago, we moved our kids into bunk beds, and I decided it would be a good time to start good night prayers with our two year old. I asked him if he wanted to say his prayers, and he grinned big and shook his head furiously in the affirmative. We closed our eyes, and folded our hands, and I said, “Thank you, God, for…”
My little buddy proceeded to name family members and friends who he wanted God to love on. But the one non-individual he named? “Church” (or “chuch”… he doesn’t say his “r” sounds.)
It struck me then that my son knows that church is special. Church is a place he feels loved and cared about. There are smiles, and lollipops, other kids, toys, and that’s where God is (when he’s not listening to prayers!) And church is something that God cares deeply about, and so it should be included in our prayers.
I wondered what would happen if we all prayed for church, if we all prayed for each other. What a difference that could make!
All because of the first night’s prayers for a two-year-old. And that’s not the only thing our kids can teach us about God, and love, and grace… There’s actually quite a bit we could learn about God and “chuch” if we would get down on eye-level with God, and consider what it means to see God in all of his uncynical, pre-overthinking-it glory. It’s not often we can get there– too often we’re clouded by our adult way of thinking about things.
Don’t get me wrong: we all do it. I do it. You do it. Even the disciples do it.
In Matthew 19:13-14, we see that the disciples represented the general society that believed children should be seen but not heard.
“Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.‘”
The parents obviously thought Jesus could provide good favor to their children, that they could be ‘consecrated’ or blessed, but the disciples thought Jesus was too important to spend his time with a bunch of kids. The disciples thought that the mission of Jesus was too important to be delayed by a group of kids spending time with Jesus himself. They put the work ahead of the wonder.
And if Jesus isn’t there, a group of kids walk away from that situation thinking that they’re less important for it.
I wonder if kids ever feel like church is a place where they’re not important. I hope that they (and we) see Jesus’ response as a clear-cut rebuttal, that redefines children’s role in church.
“Let the children come to me for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Not only did Jesus want the children to come to him, but he told all the adults that if they weren’t like children, they couldn’t inherit the kingdom of God! In other words, God is looking for a kingdom’s worth of people who act like children. Not that they are childish and immature, but that they are childlike.
I’ll never forget my father at my rehearsal dinner. Like so many other times, he was down on his hands and knees, in a suit(!), embarrassing those of us with “more sense,” playing with my nieces and nephews, the kids who could’ve cared less that we were at a fancy dinner. It’s the way that my dad was with the kids at church, and the kids where he worked, and, frankly, with his own kids at home. My dad’s enthusiasm for being childlike was and is undeniable.
So what would we have to look like? What would it mean for us to be like children in the kingdom of God?
I’ve always thought that Mike Yaconelli, the founder of Youth Specialties, summed it up the best in his book Dangerous Wonder. Now, imagine with me the Yaconelli I remember from the time I heard him speak in 2008, just hours before he died tragically. A fair-sized man, with glasses, and a belly laugh, and a beard that reminded me of Jerry Garcia.
Yaconelli loved life, and he loved Jesus, and he laid it out in several straightforward steps. [Let the countdown begin!]
Risky Curiosity: Have you ever seen a little kid try to do something? Or recognize that there was something new or different about a situation, and have to explore it? I love to watch my two-year-old attempt something he’s seen his older brother do. Sometimes, it’s trying to put his own shoes on, complete with tied shoelaces. Sometimes, it’s a bit more humorous, like when he pursues a box turtle that’s been found in the front yard or examining the preying mantis upclose and personal. His curiosity exceeds his fear, he’s unafraid in the moment, and he’s willing to explore that thing he doesn’t know or understand. Sometimes, it’s a little scary, like when he’s prepared to jump off of something several times taller than he is, because he saw someone else do it.
Children ask questions because they want to know. They want to figure it out and understand, to unwrap each situation like it’s a present on Christmas morning. They are unhindered, unfiltered, and fully engaged in every moment of every day. Kids don’t have bad days; they have bad moments. And then it’s on to the next opportunity.
It’s true at church, at home, and at school. Can we be like that about God or are we too buttoned down? Are we too convinced that asking questions makes us look stupid or weak? Can we explore Scripture, go to Bible study, embrace church like it’s a new thing and appreciate it for God’s glory in each thing? Are we afraid to go out on the limb and jump up and down, recognizing that there are things we haven’t understood… and that God’s grace could fill in the rest?
Wild Abandon: I’ll admit it, I’m more cautious than I used to be. I used to be willing to dream big, to go places others thought were too dangerous, to try new things. Something happened along the way, and I don’t always see what could be, when what is gets in the way. Instead of daring to dive in, I want to check out the temperature, gauge the splash zone, consider how long it will take to dry off.
Consider these two opposites: my father, an All-America in college, will take ten minutes to get into the swimming pool, wincing at the temperature and dancing around like he’s afraid of the cold water; my two year old will walk in, right off the side, completely submerged, whether he has his inflatable vest on or not. One has lost the risk-taking boldness, while the other abandons anything we’d consider common sense.
Robert Fulghum tells the following story in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Left with eighty five-year-olds, he introduced the game “Giants, Wizards, and Dwarfs,” where a giant beats a wizard, a wizard beats a dwarf, and a dwarf beats a giant. Each child found a partner, except for one little girl who tugged on Fulghum’s leg. “Um, where do the mermaids go?” Even though he’d only introduced three categories, she was clear that there were mermaids, too, because she was a mermaid! She understood who she was and what the world looked like when you dreamed big, and colored outside the lines.
Can we dream big? Can we see what might be, and recognize that if it is God’s will, that it can’t fail? Can we see the possibilities, the endless opportunities, the people and situations that God wants to use us for so that more people would know the love of Jesus? Can we see our life as a pile of Legos, recognize that there’s the picture it shows on the package, or the limitless options that it could be if we’d let go and let God?
Wide-eyed Listening: The last few months, I’ve been able to go and provide Chapel for the Stand Preschool. It’s a fun place, with kids learning about the Bible and how to treat each other, and what it means to be responsible. And when I go in there, all eyes are on me! Every word is received, processed, and responded to with a dozen hands shooting in the air to answer the question I’ve asked or the one they think I’ll ask.
These kids are all ears, eager to receive, to learn, to understand. They are hungry for more of the story, more of the love, more of the meaning that I know and that they want to get. They believe God is good, and loving, and kind, because why wouldn’t he be? There’s no pretentiousness, no hardening of their hearts from cynicism and sarcasm, but an absolute abandon in the depth of God’s love.
Kids listen to us… and to each other. Unfortunately, we lose that somewhere along the way. This week I was having a conversation with a college student about her internship at a hospital, where she’s supposed to lead a small group for residential patients. I shared about my own experience leading a small group for ministers, and how some of them told me that they didn’t often feel listened to in our mandated small groups. The college student said that was the problem with the group at her hospital, that patients had grown so used to not being listened to that they didn’t think what they said mattered.
Because no one was really listening.
Do we approach the Bible like that, like it doesn’t matter? Do we approach prayer like that, figuring it’s like a phone call where the receiver is just sitting on a table off the hook? Or are we fully engaged in the conversation? Are our ears open in prayer to what God wants us to hear and know and receive? We need to recognize that to listen means to stop talking, that to fully engage the message, we have to be listening, not just hearing, but receiving.
Irresponsible Passion: Kids are PASSIONATE. They are excited about what they’ll eat, what they’ll wear, what they’re going to do, what they experienced… everything. And not only are they passionate for themselves, but they want to tell everyone! Acquaintances, family members, absolute strangers. They know good news when they see it and they want to tell everyone.
The Christian life is often compared to a series of mountaintops and valleys; mountaintops where we experience the joy of the Lord and the valleys where we struggle. Kids, Yaconelli says, don’t struggle with the valleys of life because they remain passionately involved in the mountaintops.
I’m reminded of Will Ferrell in Elf when he sees the department store Santa. “SANTA! IT’S SANTA!” he screams. He’s like a kid on Christmas morning, finding a new present under the tree or recognizing that Santa is actually in the building. He’s passionate like a child, completely uncontained, unbridled, without restraint.
What are you passionate about? Is it more than for your favorite team, your work, your car and your house? Are you passionate about Jesus in a way that says to the world, “God has claimed me and I’ve claimed him back”? Are you passionate enough about Jesus that you have to make sure that everyone you know is clued into this Jesus guy in the way you act, and the things you talk about?
Naive Grace: The only being on the planet that forgives faster than my kids is my dog. Honestly, I’ve seen two kids (sometimes my own, sometimes others) have a knock down-drag-out fight, and five minutes later they are thick as thieves. They are naive to what it means to hold a grudge or to stay angry; they want what’s best and good and pure, and they’re constantly defaulting to that, regardless of how negative the situation seems to be.
It’s kind of the like the way that when they color, kids don’t worry about the lines. WE worry about the lines, and sometimes even evaluate our kids’ work that way. We even teach them to see the world in terms of the lines, rather than the colors and time and the passion it took to color the picture. But kids don’t care about the lines!
Kids are the first to welcome in the new person, to make sure everyone is included. Kids recognize that everyone brings something to the table, whether it’s skills, or perspective, or the ball you need to play the game. Kids recognize that everyone has value– and that everyone needs a place where they can be safe and happy and secure.
What would it look like if we operated that way? If we forgave faster, before it was asked for, if we proved to see the best in people rather than expecting the worst? If we believed that God was working in all, through all, and for all? If we prayed about what we cared about and knew that it was covered? If we recognized that God loved us enough to see the beauty in our lives even when we “colored outside the lines” and learned to love others like that?
Childlike Faith: Billy Graham has a stone inscribed on his property where one day he prayed to God that he would accept the things he knew to be true about God and leave aside the things he didn’t understand. It’s pretty simple, and to some people who are focused on their intellectual understanding, it could be offputting. But Yaconelli would say that childlike faith requires us to appreciate the beauty of creation, the wonder of the Virgin Birth of Jesus in the manger, the miracles of healing and new life, and to allow that we can’t know everything about how God works.
Wouldn’t we all be happier if we put aside our preconceived ideas and frustrations, and focused in on the good? I believe we could change the world, just by changing our own attitudes. I believe that if we prayed about the things we didn’t understand, that we’d receive the faith we needed for that situation, too.
Because having childlike faith means there are no dumb questions, no questions we wouldn’t ask, and who better to ask them to than God?
So practically, today, what can we do today to embrace the life of a child?
–Pray everywhere and often. Bless your food, say your goodnight prayers, stop what you’re doing right where you are and pray for someone hurting.
-Don’t worry about what you don’t know. There’s always someone who knows more and someone who knows less. You know what you need to know, right now. Remember that God loves you where you are, and be secure in that.
-Ask for help. Don’t worry about what you can’t do; there’s someone who can. You just need to know who to ask. In church, that should be easy, right?
And, finally, don’t stop playing.
Yaconelli tells the story of a boy who was unhappy with his piano lessons, whose mother took him to a famous pianist’s concert. Bored, waiting for the concert to start, the boy wandered onto the stage and began to play chopsticks on the huge Steinway. People began to cry out in anger, and ushers started to swarm down from the lobby. Who would be so brash? But as the crowd started to surge toward the stage, the concert pianist emerged from the wings, placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry, buddy, you’re doing great. Keep playing.”
Today, I hope you play in this great world that God has made for us. Just play.
“For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”