Who is this child?
When my now adult children were small, about four and six, we were at Chatauqua on the Fourth of July, along with most of the rest of Boulder and surrounding areas. It was packed. After a picnic and some play, I announced that it was time to head home, which was within walking distance. I started packing up, putting food in the cooler, shaking crumbs off the table cloth. I turned to tell my kids to start toward the trail head and realized my four year old son was gone. Gone, at Chatauqua on a day of festivities, massive crowds, and who knows what kinds of strangers. There would be no possible way to spot this little boy amidst the hundreds of people. It was about the worst feeling I’ve ever had. I can kind of imagine what Mary and Joseph felt when they realized that Jesus was not with them.
As it turned out, my four year old had done just what I had said to do: he headed for home. He just hadn’t thought to wait for the rest of us, and was a good three quarters of the way there before one of my friends found him and brought him back to the park; back to a terrified mother.
“Why were you searching for me?,” his little baffled face seemed to say. “I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.”
“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
“Child, why have you treated us like this?” Thank goodness for love that is so strong that it can overcome the urge to throttle a child at such a time! The absolutely most terrifying moment in a parent’s life and the child says, “What?!”
Who is this child? This story of Jesus in the Temple, oblivious to his parents’ fear, is the only story in the New Testament about Jesus’ childhood beyond his birth, and is found only in Luke. It is not a supernatural story of miracles and extraordinary happenings told in order to identify this unique, divine being. It is a story of an ordinary family with a precocious child who is simply (well, maybe not simply) being the twelve year old that he is.
This passage, and this Christmas season highlight children, from the baby in the manger, to the Little Drummer Boy, to the delight and wonder on children’s faces. Adults often look back nostalgically or from a kind of set apart position, watching children’s reactions and interactions with the season.
In this passage Jesus is engaged with the teachers, the rabbis in the Temple. He seems to be “in the flow”, unaware of time. Children tend to be better at that than do adults, whether building with legos, painting a picture, or watching ants make their way across a sidewalk.
This is not to say that childhood is some idyllic phase of life. Even under the best of circumstances, childhood is a mix of huge learning curves, confusing messages and experiences, and vast vulnerability. And we well know that most of the world’s children do not live under the best of circumstances; indeed, very far from it.
It is to say that there is something important about childhood, but not childhood as a concept, as a physiological phase, but about specific children, including the child Jesus, from which we adults can learn. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is shown as a very real adolescent boy: focused on what’s important to him, unaware of time, unaware of the risks. As adults, we may well be able to identify with Mary and Joseph and their fear, and feel a bit of irritation at this boy who didn’t bother to tell his parents where he was!
But can we remember a time when we were “in the flow” or so deeply involved in something of delight/joy/meaning that we were unaware of the passing of time, or that people expected dinner to be on the table, or that a meeting had started half an hour ago?
When Jesus, as an adult, called the children to him, when he told the disciples to allow them to be with him, he wasn’t saying, “Oh, what cute little tykes. I want to hear their funny takes on the world.” He was saying, “Children, these children, are inherently valuable, just the way they are. You adults seem to think they are ‘people in waiting’, future disciples; that they need to wait on the margins and watch how it’s done. But I’m telling you that it is you who need to be watching them. They are not living in some isolated, pristine bubble, but in the same real world that we do that involves vulnerability and brokenness. These children, this child, is not in training to become an adult, a disciple; she already is a full child of God within the midst of also being considered property, being the last to eat, being the one whose voice is not heard. In the midst of all that this child still holds on to wonder and expectation.”
I may have taken some liberties with that interpretation, but when we really consider how Jesus seemed to be as a child, and how he treated children as an adult, we see “something about childhood itself (that) intimates faithful following of Jesus.”
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
So there’s our charge: to receive the kingdom of God, here and now, not in some future, “mature”, adult time frame, but here and now. “Becoming like a child implies our partnership with God (with honest) admission of the vulnerability and brokenness, (and wonder) of life. To become like a child, in this sense, is to become who we already are – the full inheritors of God’s blessing and God’s choosing of us, valued not for who we will become (or what we will accomplish), but for who we already are.”
Adults, as well as children, too often believe that we need to become something else, something more, before we become acceptable to God. We say, but sometimes don’t live out, that we don’t have to be perfect to be loved by God. And yet I think we too often create some future, some hard to reach standards that must be hurdled before we are true, full disciples.
And that’s a place where adults can learn from children, not to negate the very needed guidance children need from adults. That baby in the manger, the refugee child, the child of the wealthy who is born into every possible material advantage, is still unique, vulnerable, and connected. The immediacy of childhood, the intimacy, the ability to ask their questions about life because they haven’t yet learned our social mores of “acceptability”, their not yet diminished sense of wonder, their assumption of intimacy, are not qualities that we need to outgrow in order to be mature adults. Indeed, I believe they are qualities best kept in order to be mature adults, rich, faithful followers of Jesus.
I work with children; everyday, all day, and then go home to live with my five year old grandson. I don’t have an idealized picture of children! They can be hugely irritating, self-absorbed, and both cruel and tender. So what is it about childhood that God would like us to keep? What did Jesus mean when he said we are to become like one of these? I think what we find amusing about some of children’s quotes or prayers, like those Jessica read earlier, is that they are so authentic, intimate, honest. They remind us of ways of being with God that we may have forgotten, or have learned need to be left behind.
What could be more honest or more awe-struck than “Dear God, it must be super hard to love all the people in the world, especially my brother. I don’t know how you do it.”
What could be a better prayer of gratitude than “Dear God, I didn’t think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday. That was really cool.” And I can’t think of a clearer expression of intimacy with God than “Dear God, if you watch in church this Sunday, I will show you my new shoes.”
I do believe God desires for us not to grow out of childhood, or adolescence, or any other stage of life that helps us to be who we already are; that is, children of God. I believe we are to sit in the temple, the classroom, the concert hall, the art gallery, anywhere we connect with God, even at the risk of irritating or confounding those who expect something other of us. I believe God wants to hear our honest questions (Dear God, are you actually invisible or is that just a trick?), our intimate fears and joys (Dear God, I love Christmas and Easter. Could you please put another holiday in the middle; there’s nothing good in there now.”)
May we know ourselves to be the children of God that we are; not ideally, not perfectly, but wholly. May we see the promise of each person, child or elder, listen for wisdom from unexpected sources, and deepen our connection with God.