Today as I was wading through stacks and stacks of old documents headed for the shredder, I found some gems from years past: my Valedictorian speech from High School, my son’s High School Graduation Program, and this article that I wrote on a snowy winter day, I’m not sure where or when. All three of these treasures spoke to me in different ways. The Valedictory address isn’t quite me anymore – my son has a son and is so much more than the young man who graduated that day – and that article, while I might say it differently today, the truth of it is alive still in my heart.
“Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child shall not enter it.” Mark 10:15
As I watched the son of some friends playing, the above verse from the Gospel of Mark popped into my head. And I started to wonder. What was Jesus trying to tell his listeners and me about ourselves? Are children really that much different from adults? What attributes do children have that adults no longer have and that are so significant that Jesus had to make this point? What child-like attributes must I recapture if I want to enter the Kingdom of God?
This story is told in the Gospel of Mark and in the Gospel of Matthew. Both versions seem to indicate that the children Jesus was referring to were young enough to be held in his lap – probably under five years old. Do I remember what it’s like to be that young, to see the world from that perspective?
What were most of us like when we were two, three, four years old? Generally kids that age are –
Open – Things and people that are different are mostly just new and the differences don’t seem to matter all that much. Skin color, language, “odd-behavior” don’t seem to matter until the “mattering” is taught.
Fearless – Have you ever watched a kid fly down the mountain on skis or skinny up a tree? Being afraid is also a lesson that must be taught.
Eager – My son’s favorite words when he was young, and we were traveling, were “are we there yet? Are we there yet?” Children just can’t wait for most things to happen – unless they’ve learned that that “something” might be uncomfortable or painful.
Trusting – Children believe. They believe in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Bogeyman. They believe that their parent’s kiss will make it better and that adults will catch them if they jump – until adults miss them one too many times or are too busy one too many times to really focus on that kill and it doesn’t work anymore.
Spontaneous – Kids don’t need a project analysis and timetable to build a fort. They just need a rainy day, some blankets and chairs. Remember that sudden smile, big kiss and “Mommy, I love you” that would come out of nowhere! What ever happened to those times? Maybe it was “Now honey, don’t make a mess!” or “Not right now, dear; I’m busy.”
Honest – Sometimes brutally honest, but almost always innocent and guileless. As Aunt Janie comes into the house, you hear “Mom, Aunt Janie is really fat!” And while we know that Aunt Janie is really fat, we say “honey, that’s mean. You mustn’t say that about Aunt Janie. That’s not nice.”
I decided to write all of this down, got to this point and couldn’t seem to get any further. Everything I put down seemed so – well, off the mark. There was this nagging sense that I was missing something. After struggling for 30 or 40 minutes, I heard this voice say, “Toni, go take a walk. Maybe something will come.” It sounded like good advice to me, so I bundled up and took off.
It was snowing outside – still. Adding more inches to the more than two feet of snow already on the ground. The only sounds I could hear were the occasional bird singing, the snow shovels here and there scraping against the sidewalks, and some kids playing in the snow.
As I walked, I let my mind wander, giving thanks for the beauty and peace of the day and remembering how much I love the feeling and the smell of snow. Then I began to review what I had written in my head. That nagging feeling wouldn’t go away. There was definitely something I wasn’t seeing. I repeated the verse from Mark over and over. How do I use the profile of a child to show me the way to enter the Kingdom of God? I repeated that question over and over – nothing new. I thought about the two verbs in the verse: receive and enter. Then it struck me! I had been focusing on the wrong verb. I had been trying to enter like a child. I wanted to take an action in a child-like state. This kingdom thing was something for me to do. And, maybe, just maybe .... that wasn’t the major message in this verse. Jesus said that we must receive the Kingdom first – and we must receive like a child would. Only then could we enter. The trick was to see how a child would receive the Kingdom.
In order to do that, I had to make an assumption and draw an analogy. First, my assumption was that Jesus and his listeners believed, as I do, that the Kingdom of God is something very special. Then, the analogy – for a child, a Christmas present is something very special. So, to help me see how a child would receive something very special, I created the following scene.
In the room this three-year-old girl stands with eyes as big as silver dollars, filled with excitement and anticipation. Her head is full of all the possible things that could be in that big box her mother and father are holding. Both hands opened wide, uplifted to receive the brightly wrapped box, she’s got lots of questions. Is it mine? What is it? Can I play with it? Will it break? But we know that the questions are just excitement. She knows the gift is hers and she can hardly wait.
She absolutely believes that she deserves the gift – that she’s a good girl – and that her parents truly want her to have it. It doesn’t cross her mind to ask if there are strings attached to the gift. She knows it’s being given to her because she is loved.
Although she would not be able to articulate this, she also trusts that the gift will not harm her in any way. She knows that her parents want her to be safe, well and happy. And at this age, she believes that she will always get what she asks for.
As I pondered this scene, I began to identify words that describe this act of receiving:
Open to possibilities
Then the adult that I am remembered the times when the gift wasn’t’ anything I wanted, but what someone thought was best for me or what they thought would be fun. And then there was the time the gift broke before New Year’s. Or the time that …. well, you know how that story goes. We all grow up and learn that not all people can be trusted; that curiosity killed the cat; that our gift wasn’t the latest model or the most expensive one; that not everyone thinks that we deserve the best; that maybe we’re not a good girl or boy’ that pretty things can cause pain; that ‘love’ sometimes has strings.
For me, and I believe for most of us, the transition from child-receiver to adult-receiver is a gradual thing, an ‘other-than-conscious’ learned thing. And when I really focused on the message in the words spoken by Jesus in Mark, I was stunned to see just how far away I had come from the essence of that three-year-old girl.
And so, the message that Jesus was giving to his disciples and to me is that to enter the Kingdom of God, they, and I, must find that child within again who can see the Divine, the Universe, that power by whatever name you call it, with eyes as big as silver dollars, filled with eager anticipation and joy, secure in the knowledge that we are whole, at one in the Universe and loved, that child who can reach out with open arms, trusting that the Kingdom of God is already mine.
“When some of the Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come, he answered saying to them, The Kingdom of God does not come by observation. Neither will they say, behold it is here or behold it is there! For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”