As Little Children
November 28, 2004
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together. And the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ""Let the little children come to me; do not stop them. For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."" And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them, and blessed them.
Reading from Swedenborg
Though it may seem paradoxical, still it is perfectly true that angels have a better and fuller understanding of the deeper meaning of the Bible when very young boys and girls are reading it than when it is read by adults who have no faith grounded in kindness. I have been told the reason why, and it is this: Very young boys and girls live in a state of mutual love and innocence; so their most tender vessels are almost heavenly, being simply an ability to receive, which the Lord can make ready to receive. Yet they have no awareness at all of what the Lord is doing, except through a certain delight in harmony with their character and disposition. (Arcana Coelestia #1776)
There are many, many abilities and prerogatives that we had as children that are lost to us as adults. For instance, the prerogative, and the ability, simply to have fun. That one comes to mind first. Or the ability, and the right, to act out of the emotional reality of the moment, without shame or disguise. The ability, for example, to be foot-stomping mad one moment, and to have genuinely forgiven and forgotten all about it moments later. I would like to have that one back!
But perhaps the best thing that children are able to do--and this is especially hard for the adult ego--is to receive gifts.
You may protest that you often receive gifts. But do you really? How often do we mentally guesstimate what others have spent on Christmas and birthday presents for us, so that we may spend comparably on them? When someone takes you out for lunch, do you not make a little mental note that says, "I owe so-and-so lunch"? This is not how we received as children.
I fear that we often bring this mindset into our relationship with God. Religious observation and prayer come to feel like obligations: small ways of repaying God for the blessings we receive. We forget that God does not need our words of thanks and praise; God wants and needs something much more personal.
A Hasidic story comes to mind here:
A cobbler came to Rabbi Isaac of Ger and said, "Tell me what I can do about my morning prayer. My customers are poor men who have only one pair of shoes. I pick up my shoes late in the evening and work on them most of the night; at dawn there is still work to be done if the men are to have their shoes before they go to work. . . .
Sometimes I rush through the prayer quickly and get back to my work--but then I feel bad about it. At other times I let the hour of prayer go by. Then too I feel a sense of loss and every now and then, as I raise my hammer from the shoes, I can almost hear my heart sigh, 'What an unlucky man I am, that I am not able to make my morning prayer.'"
Said the Rabbi, "If I were God I would value that sigh more than the prayer." (from Taking Flight, by Anthony de Mello)
God only wants to be let into our lives. That sigh let God in more humbly and more directly than any amount of words of thanks and praise. That ability to offer to God the simple truth of what our heart feels at any moment . . . that is part of the childlike innocence with which we receive the kingdom of heaven.
Another wonderful quality of young children is the way they forget to say "thank-you." Giving a present to child can be a delicate moment. I have often sat on pins and needles waiting to see how a gift would be received, knowing that nothing would be feigned or disguised. When my nephews and nieces were younger, I gave two of them stuffed animals for Christmas--a simple and obvious choice of gift. When they opened them up, they gasped and immediately snatched them out of their boxes and hugged them. No better thanks could have been given! Certainly this was a much more gratifying expression of appreciation than a rote and dutiful "Thank-you, Uncle Jonathan" would have been.
I daresay the Divine Love has the same attitude toward us. When one of us receives a gift of grace, I wonder which of these most delights the Divine Heart: Ten hymns of praise and thanksgiving? A solemn vow to be a better person and so demonstrate that we merit the gifts we have received? A pious expression of concern for the less fortunate? Or is the Divine Heart most gratified (and relieved!) when we are so caught up with joy and the eagerness to use God's gifts that we forget all about these conventional expressions of thanks?
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that we should give up saying "thank-you" or that we should ignore all the social customs around gift-giving. It is important for others to hear our gratitude. Much less am I suggesting that we should not thank and praise God--because conscious gratitude is a transforming spiritual power. Nor would I wish to downplay our role and responsibility in our own spiritual growth. For it remains true that "God helps those who help themselves." We repent and reform so that God may regenerate us.
Still, there come moments in our spiritual regeneration when we have done all we can for our own reformation. At those moments, the only thing left to do is to receive--to receive as simply and as naturally as a young child. One of my favorite sayings from Meister Eckhart is this: "God loves to give big gifts. The bigger the gift, the more God loves to give it. The biggest gift God has to give is God." This gift cannot be earned or paid back; it can only be received. And only the youngest part of the soul is innocent enough and brave enough to receive this gift.
Jesus comes to each of us and says, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them." May we, as we move toward Advent, and look forward to new life on Christmas day, recover the child within, and be ready to receive the Lord's Christmas gift to us . . . innocently, eagerly, joyfully.
Lord Jesus, you have given us the biggest gift of all: your own presence among us. Help us to receive that great gift with joy, and also to receive with a childlike heart, and with joy of the spirit, the gifts that you give us through our fellow human beings. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mitchell