Seeing through the Smoke
I was driving a group of children to church camp in the van, a path we had driven many times. But as we drove this time, I noticed something new: the path looks different to them than it does to me. We passed an old, ugly, tall structure of some sort and they said, “Rapunzel’s tower!” We passed large piles of dirt, and they exclaimed, “The pyramids!” And then we passed smokestacks releasing smoke into the air, and while all I could see was pollution and global warming, they yelled, “Look! The cloud factory!” That was my favorite. Where I saw a run-down building, a bunch of dirt and nasty pollution, these little children experienced wonder. And as I sat in the front seat, I suddenly wanted to cry because I remembered being that whimsical child. I wondered, when was the last time I looked at a “smokestack” and saw a “cloud factory”? And I thought about how tragic it is that life and “maturity” could beat that out of us. But I also wanted to cry because I was so thankful that these kids had a sense of whimsy and wonder in their lives. I was thankful that they had room to imagine and appreciate life, and thought about how children seem to have so much hope and optimism. Everything is new and exciting, and they were teaching me.
Which brings me to today, as I reflect on Mark 10:13-16, where it says,,
People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Then he hugged the children and blessed them.
I think we can easily scroll through these words of Jesus and say, “Okay, Jesus liked kids,” and move on. But what might the implications of this passage be for the church and our lives? Well, first, if churches aim to simply “deal with the kids” so adults can have their church experience, we are doing what the disciples did in the passage above. But children should be prioritized in our church settings; their growth and development are of primary importance. But here’s the twist: adults should be learning from children – regularly. Teaching should not take place only from adult to child.
When children speak about things of God, they speak from a different “knowing” than most adults can claim. They have a connection to the kingdom that most of us cannot completely understand. So these are my thoughts as I reflect on the previous passage: What does it mean that you won’t enter God’s kingdom unless you welcome it like a child? Well, over the years, many have interpreted this passage to mean that you won’t get into heaven unless you have blind, unquestioning faith. I do not read that. A reading of the Bible that frames Jesus and God as looking for reasons to exclude people from their Kingdom misses the entire point of the Bible. I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t question everything. They are curious and explorative, they wonder and ask and discuss amongst themselves. They do not passively accept everything you tell.
So the message I understand is this: God’s kingdom is all around us, but we must be able to see it as a child does in order to experience its wonder and joy. Children can see it. They can feel it. And we need to be able to welcome it not without questions, but in the midst of all of our questions. Denying questions is only denial. But when one realizes that you can have questions and still walk in God’s kingdom with his hugs and his blessings, the kingdom looks different. To truly experience God’s kingdom, we need to be able to take in a sunset or thunderstorm with whimsy. We need to be able to sit in the beauty of creation. We need to know that the kingdom is open to us. We need to be able to come out from behind our planners, our checklists, and our responsibilities long enough to laugh and breathe and truly see people. When was the last time you laid down your productivity long enough for Jesus to give you a hug and a blessing? I don’t see this Mark 10:13-16 setting forth a hard restriction or threat that one can’t enter the kingdom unless they are like a child. I see it as an instruction that unless we become like children, we simply won’t find the healing and beautiful kingdom of God to be effective in our lives. Smokestacks will just be pollution and dirt will just be dirt. Being free to question, wonder, discuss, be amazed, and be secure in who God created you to be – these are God’s kingdom things. And the little children will lead us there.