GROWING INTO A CHILD
How crass was it of the disciples to turn away people bringing children to be blessed by Jesus? Silly, perhaps, but not exceptional.
How crass was it of the disciples to turn away people bringing children to be blessed by Jesus? Silly, perhaps, but not exceptional. There is an odd juxtaposition in life. When a family gathers together to celebrate, their children become the centre of attention, the talking point, the object of pride. Yet when the church family gathers together to worship, children can easily become the awkward relatives we don’t know how to talk to. Church does funny things to people. The confidence they have otherwise evaporates when they step inside. They become anxious and on edge and start to become controlling as a way of coping. Children are unpredictable and difficult to rein in, so we ensure they are kept on the margins to minimise the risk.
The disciples provide a textbook example of how not to be welcoming for Jesus. Whereas all manner of adults found their way to him – up a tree, through the roof and in the crowds – they decide to act as minders when the pre-school rocks up. The grown-up business of saving Israel was disrupted by incontinent little people with runny noses and whiny voices. They obviously hadn’t consulted Jesus about this, taking it on themselves to tell them off.
It says that people were bringing children forward. We assume Mark means the parents, but this was an ancient community where many shared in the task of parenting in the wider family and among friends. So, in rejecting the children they rejected a large cohort of adults who could have got near Jesus through these children. If we turn away or inhibit children, we send a message to those who stand behind them or hold them in their arms that they are not as welcome as they once were or will be when the children are grown up.
There is a ripple effect, for better or for worse, in the way we greet people for Christ. And in denying children, we send a subliminal message that any who do not have a coherent adult voice, an ability to speak for themselves and a capacity to act like a rational able-bodied adult may get the same treatment.
Jesus didn’t simply correct the disciples, he told them off angrily for their presumption. His words: Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs are so well-known we barely stop to examine them. There is no interpretation of his words. Perhaps they are meant to be self-evident, but experience suggests not. Many take this saying as an indication that to follow Christ asks a person to surrender their capacity to reason, to become anti-intellectual. This attitude is only reinforced when people don’t think their faith through and become lazy and complacent.
The learning curve for a young child is as steep as a mountain. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus meant? When we reflect, lots more comes to mind. Here are three for me.
Children are curious, not cynical. There is a refreshingly open approach to the world. Everything is new, waiting to be discovered. The itch to understand can’t be scratched away. The ‘why’ question might drive parents mad at times, but it’s an innocent desire to make sense. Sure, children become bored eventually, but they don’t express this the way adults do, who are much more likely to vent their seen-it-all-before cynicism, to be proud of their know-it-all worldliness. It’s not cool to be wide-eyed among your peers, but we lose something of our soul when we cease to be curious about what God has made.
Children are spontaneous, not calculating. They will rush unwittingly into what lies in front of them. Yes, this means they will fall over sometimes and get muddy, but in doing so they still have much more fun than the adult who sits distractedly on the side, consulting their phone and occasionally looking up to make sure the child is still there. In the best disciples, there is a cheerful, can-do attitude to the things of God. They don’t sit back, working out how to do the minimum without shaming themselves. If children make a count of the cost, it is not slow and laboured, but quick and courageous. Despite our maturity, it is our lack of bravery for God that marks us out as adults, not the children Jesus is looking for.
Children are playful, not pompous. This is the unselfconscious way they encounter things. How can I make what lies in front of me into something I can play with? They have no idea how funny they can look to adults sometimes, thankfully – otherwise they might stop. We imagine their playfulness is a sign of immaturity, but it is an indication they are learning – and having fun along the way. Some adults become so self-aware they can’t play along anymore. They might feel more dignified, but something is lost along the way, not least an ability to learn from the jokey, incidental details of life. Somehow, the most mature people are those who are still children at heart; what Kate Bush called ‘the man with the child in his eyes’.
Childlikeness is a mark of the Holy Spirit in a disciple. But childishness isn’t. There is a way of being a child as an adult which is harmful to those around us, and it is more common in the church than we should be comfortable with. Children are naturally self-centred. The world revolves around them and the adult world’s responsibility is to help them see there are other stars in the sky too. Some people, including, indeed often, the high-functioning never grow up this way and remain perpetually a child in their selfishness. What they visit on others can be remarkably destructive and, lacking either self-awareness or self-discipline, either don’t see or don’t care what harm they cause.
When they don’t get their way or life delivers less than the best, they throw tantrums, letting their anger out, like a toddler. In the process they damage others, like a tornado ripping through houses that is there one moment and gone the next. But the effects are lasting. Other people begin to tiptoe round them and often shape what they say and plan to ensure there are no tantrums. In churches there is sometimes one person whose controlling outbursts mean that progress isn’t made where others know it needs to be but lack the unity to tackle it.
Some children will bully others if given the chance. Very young children may hit or push another child over because they are curious at the effects and the power at their fingertips. It is unselfconscious and usually trained out of them. But if it isn’t, the bully can mature to upset and intimidate the people around them. Who knows what goes on in the mind of a relentless bully? Are they unaware of their effects, are they aware but unable to control themselves, or do they like what they do because of the buzz it gives them, to go with getting their own way? Or is it a mixture of all three?
There is too much of it in churches, and I speak from sad experience. The questions posed are, of course, the wrong ones. We can’t get inside the mind of someone else for certain, but we do inhabit our own minds, and it is a question we should each pose of ourselves. When we do, we take a step towards the eradication of bullying among the people of God, where it does not belong.
So, when Jesus says we should receive the kingdom of God like a child, what kind of child should we be? Childlike or childish? In the struggle to work that out lies the key to our life with God.
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