Sunday, December 28, 2014

Suffer the Little Children...

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea... Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. " ~ Matthew 18: 1-6, 10

This morning's prayers turned my mind toward the children in my life. Though I am not a father, I am an uncle. There are children in my building and neighborhood. I meet them in rehearsal, in stores, on my walks and runs, and at the Y. My friends introduce me to their own children, and those children introduce me to their friends. And I have always thought of them not as "your kids," but rather as "our kids."

There are people who scoff at the expression, "It takes a village to raise a child." Let them scoff. I was raised by the people in my neighborhood, not just my parents. They taught me manners and respect. They also taught me that there were people who lived and believed differently than my own family did. They kept me safe when I was afraid or hurt. And they let me (and my parents!) know when I was behaving badly. Some of them had kids of their own. Others were just neighbors: the village of people who taught me what it meant to be a man. 

And so this man Jesus, this eternal Word made flesh, this incarnation of the Creator of the universe -- he came into the world as a child. He cried. He pooped and puked. He drove his parents nuts sometimes.He asked too many questions. And as a child, he learned what no God could ever know. He learned what it was to be helpless, to be at the mercy of people unimaginably more powerful than he. He learned what it was to be taught, to be raised by a village.

Did he also know pain and abuse? This passage from Matthew's gospel suggests that he may have. Jesus speaks passionately about the holiness of children in their humility and simplicity, but he is also fierce in his condemnation of anyone who harms them. "Do not despise them," he warns, for they have heavenly advocates before God. Heaven itself is diminished when anyone harms a child.

Jesus is not sentimental about children. He does not coo and weep about them. He holds them up as the model of what it is to be human. In their humility, their curiosity, their capacity for trust, and even their propensity for mischief, children taught Christ what the experience of being a creation was really like. 

We need to raise our children, yes. But as we offer them guidance and discipline, we must remember Jesus exhortation: better to die than to harm a child. When we meet a child, we are meeting Christ. In each of them, we encounter our strange, aggravating, surprising, curious, inspiring, and ever loving God. May we receive them not only as our responsibility, but also and always as our teachers.

A few days before Christmas, a woman brought her little granddaughter to swim in the pool where I was teaching a water fitness class. This is against the rules. During class time, the pool belongs to us. The girl jumped in the water in her little life vest, and her grandmother laughted as she squealed and splashed. I noticed a few heads turn disapprovingly, and finally one class member waded discreetly over to the lifeguard and whispered something I did not hear. The next thing I knew, the guard was speaking to the grandmother, asking her to take her child and leave. It offended something deep inside me. "Wait," I said. "There is plenty of room. Let's not send a child away at Christmas." I was afraid I might make a few class members mad by breaking the rules. But I was more afraid of what Jesus might think about being chased away. It is one of the first bible stories I remember hearing in Sunday school. Lord, may I never forget it.

Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them. ~ Mark 10: 13-16