But then I realized something. The realization came, as it so often does, from something I had read hundreds of times before. It wasn’t something new or particularly amazing. I was reading one of the gospel stories of Jesus and the children. If you’ve been in enough church services and children’s churches, you know the story well…”suffer the little children and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
I know the passage; I’ve heard sermon after sermon on it, most of them emphasizing the innocence of children and their open-hearted willingness to believe. But there was something that every one of those sermons omitted – the fact that children are unabashedly, enthusiastically pushy and selfish about their relationships with the people they love.
In all fairness, that omission was hardly the fault of any pastor. Since the Victorian era, we’ve idealized children. They really are amazing – little potential people growing into functioning, contributing, independent adults. But in the midst of that amazement, we misrepresent them a bit. We style them as “cherubs,” little angels who represent all of the sweetness, innocence and simplicity that adulthood supposedly steals from us.
And if you believe that, you’ve never worked with children.
We work on teaching our children not to be that way. We emphasize sharing, patience, and giving everyone a turn. And that’s important behavior when we’re dealing with other people. But Jesus says that doesn’t really apply with Him. He warns his disciples “Don’t ever get between them and me.” Jesus is God – omnipresent, all places and adequate for everyone. He doesn’t want us to hang back and share – he expects us to have that same single-minded selfish desire to get to what we want that was trained out of us as children. In talking to Him, he doesn’t want “Jesus and Others and You” – he wants us to shove those “Others” right out of there and just pay attention to the Jesus and You part.
Looking at Jesus's encouragement for us to “accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child” with all of the enthusiasm and selfish desire that entails also helps to explain a lot of other stories in the gospels that confused me as a child. Take, for example, the “persistent friend” in Luke 11, who asks for bread for a guest in the middle of the night…and keeps asking. Or the widow in Luke 18 who keeps annoying the judge for justice. As a child, those stories always seemed to fly in the face of everything I had been taught was “good behavior.” If someone showed up unexpectedly, you coped; you did NOT go out in the middle of the night and annoy the crap out of your neighbors until they got out of bed and gave you food for your guest. If you were treated unjustly by the world, you turned the other cheek and overcame the difficulty, becoming a better person in the process. Those behaviors described by Jesus seemed terribly selfish and contrary to everything I had been taught was acceptable behavior.
That’s a bit hard for me. The idea of not asking for help, of not demanding attention, of not putting myself forward has been hardwired into me by too many years of training and disappointment. I hesitate to pray too much, to bug God about little things that I can get by without. I always figure that there’s someone else with a bigger problem, and I need to make room for their issues in the God-attention lineup.
But I’m wrong. God doesn’t have an attention line; His presence is infinite, and he disapproves of me hanging back and letting other people cut into the line in front of me. That willingness to hang back is a reflection not only of a lack of confidence, but a loss of the selfish, innocent passion of childhood. If I’m going to have the relationship with Jesus that He wants, I have to accept the kingdom of heaven as a child does. I have to not only want Jesus’s attention, I have to selfishly, lavishly, and loudly demand it. In our relationship, that’s not bad behavior – that’s coming Home to the one being that doesn’t mind me being demanding…He commands it.