One of the highlights of my week during the school year is the St. James Preschool chapel service on Wednesday mornings. This past week I told the Godly Play creation story to the kids. Some of you may be familiar with it. Part of the story goes like this:
“In the beginning, in the beginning there was, well, in the beginning there wasn’t very much. In the beginning there was nothing. Except, perhaps, an enormous smile; but there was no one there to see it. Then, on the very first day, God gave us the gift of light.”
The story continues from there, but you get the picture. Cut to Wednesday night, and Maisie, from the Rabbit class, is getting tucked into bed by her mother.
Maisie: Good night, Mommy. I love you all the way to infinity and back.
Mommy: I love you all the way past infinity and back.
Maisie: Past infinity? But where does infinity go, Mommy?
Mommy: It keeps going and never ends.
Maisie: Is God before or after infinity?
Mommy: That's a very good question, Maisie.
Long pause. Now, at this point, I’m quite certain Mommy is beginning to break a sweat. But on this night, at least, she’s let off the hook when Maisie finally says, “I think I'll ask Father John...he'll know!”
If you think this Sunday morning gig is challenging, try facing 30 three and four year olds every week!
Jesus wasn’t fooling around when he took a little child, held her in his arms and said to his rather dense disciples, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." Jesus wasn’t trying to be cute or sentimental. Rather, he was illustrating the point that God doesn’t evaluate success the way that we normally do. And he does so in a rather astonishing way – by saying that God is like a little child.
If we want to be close to God, we have to welcome the child – both real, live actual children, and the child-like, dare I say, God-like, capacity that we all carry within. If we want to be close to God, we have to welcome the child.
I think the clue to what Jesus is up to here comes from the immediate context of the story. Jesus has told his disciples, on more than one occasion, that he is going to be betrayed, killed, and then rise again. They still don’t get it. They can’t get it, not yet, because it doesn’t square with their definition of what God is like and therefore with what God’s Messiah, Jesus, should be like.
For them, God is large and in charge. God is the guarantor of worldly success, blessing those who are good and punishing those who are bad. Therefore, it follows that God’s Messiah will be powerful and triumphant. A Messiah who is condemned and dies isn’t much help. A Messiah like that is a scandal, a failure and thus no Messiah at all.
But what if God isn’t like that? What if God is more like a little child, more like Maisie, more like what you and I aspire to be like in our best moments?
We tend to think of God as one who is remote and unaffected by the ebb and flow of life; an unmoved mover who is literally above it all. But what if God is more like a child – seemingly always underfoot, at the center of it all, completely open and taking it all in. Such a God, however powerful, would also need to be incredibly vulnerable and receptive. Jesus understood that children, then as now, are the most vulnerable among us. In welcoming them, we welcome our own vulnerability and that of others. We welcome the vulnerability of God.
We also tend to think of God as one who is preoccupied with evaluating, comparing, rewarding, and punishing. Such a God inspires fear and perhaps, therefore, compliance, but also a fair bit of resentment and resistance. We are always trying to measure up to this God, and never quite making it. So, we either drop out of the competition altogether, or else double down our efforts to be successful.
But what if God is less concerned with measuring up to an ideal, than with exploring what is? Until we’ve socialized them into the stress-filled, status preoccupied culture we’ve created, in which nothing matters but success, children are completely creatures of the moment, the here and now. They are fully present to their experience and give themselves over to it without reservation. Try to tell a child that it is time to stop doing whatever they are doing before they are ready and transition to whatever is next and you’ll know what I mean. Meltdown!
We are constantly focused on what’s next, what we should be doing, what others can do better. Children are focused on this beautiful present moment. It is enough, just as it is. In fact, if we really perceived reality as they do we would be stunned by the awesome wonder of it all. I’m not saying that children are perfect. I’m saying they are awake, operating at a level of wide open awareness that we have to work to narrow down, focus, and prioritize. Their first move is to wonder . . . “Is God before or after infinity?” Whereas our first move is to evaluate “How do I answer this question correctly?” They get excited! We get stressed!
In welcoming children, we renew our capacity for awe before the sheer mystery of it all. We welcome the mystery of God, the Source and End of life. And we don’t need to worry about it. We just need to see it as it is in all its wonder, and give ourselves – and others, including our children – permission to enjoy it. Too often, we are like the plumber, recently graduated from his apprenticeship, who was staring intently at Niagra Falls. Finally, he announced, “I think I can fix that.”
Life is not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be enjoyed. Welcome the child.
If we too often imagine that God is distant and demanding, there also is a part of us that believes that God is capricious. This is evident in the behavior of the disciples, who were arguing among themselves about which of them was the greatest. When God is both demanding and capricious, one either seeks to be obedient out of fear, or to bend the world to one’s own will out of a cynical disregard of God and others. That cynicism, too, is finally rooted in fear – the fear that God and others can not be trusted.
People who are consumed with getting ahead, with making the most of every advantage and exploiting their privilege, are deeply insecure people. They are afraid, and so the struggle to be the greatest, to be on top of the heap, is a misguided attempt to alleviate their anxiety. It is an expression of deep cynicism and distrust of God.
But what if God does not exercise freedom arbitrarily? What if God is limited in at least this respect: God is free only to love, because that is the nature of God? Perhaps God is more like a child than a tyrant, for children are incredibly unconstrained compared to adults in their freedom to give and receive love.
Now, I’ve met quite a few tyrannical three-year olds; I’m quite sure I was one. Theirs is an age appropriate egocentricity in response to their developmental needs. No, what I’m pointing to is that despite their terrifying dependency in almost every respect, their capacity to love is remarkable: whether it is a dog, a doll, a beloved blanket, or daddy.
Children love freely, because they trust God’s love in a fundamental way. They are so quick to forgive our manifest faults as adults charged with their care, because they literally can’t believe that anyone would wish them harm. It is too scary to for them to contemplate. It requires a fair amount of trauma to turn their freedom into cynical disregard. Children know intuitively that they are beloved; the apple of God’s eye. All too soon, life can disabuse them of this, at the cost of their true nature.
One week, I was unable to lead the Preschool chapel service, so Roger, the Preschool’s director, substituted for me. Later, he shared with me a conversation that one of the little girls had with her mother when she came to pick her up that afternoon. Her mother asked her how chapel was. The little girl looked pensive for a moment and then said, “Well, God wasn’t there, but Roger was.”
Here is a child not yet consumed with cynicism, for whom priesthood can still serve as an icon of God’s loving presence. We all share in this priesthood by virtue of our baptism. We are all called to be free to love, to be transparent to God. When we are free in this way, without insecurity or cynicism, we become far more concerned with how to love in any given situation, than with how to gain some competitive advantage. In those moments, we welcome the child. We welcome God the Child.
Jesus invites us to welcome the child, to reimagine God as mindful presence, as wonder-evoking mystery, as unconstrained love. He invites us to remember who we were created to become. Amen.