Kids and the Kingdom

A week ago, ahead of the arrival of our daughter and son-in-law and their two small children for an extended visit, I could be found busily cleaning the house, polishing every surface and making the place sparkle.

I don’t know why I bothered.

Honestly.  How could I have forgotten, having had four of my own?  Young children, cute as buttons and oh so delightful, are also inexhaustible  instruments of chaos waging unflagging guerrilla warfare with the household gods of  Order and Cleanliness.

People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “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.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

There’s a pattern going on in the Gospel of Mark, chapters 9 and 10.  Three times now Jesus has had some consequential things to say to his students and then his teaching is immediately followed up by references to small children.

To begin with the writer of Mark ties Jesus’ short discourse about expecting to suffer and be killed to a private debate among his students about which of them is the greatest.  It’s obvious, even in the face of Jesus’ clear suggestion that “this will not end well, my friends”,  that the students themselves still believe they are on some kind of glory road (cue: Jesus Christ Superstar, “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle…”).  In response Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first among them must be the servant of all, and he brings a child into their circle to emphasize the point.

Next, one of the students named John complains that they have seen other religious teachers in the area who don’t belong to their group but who none-the-less have co-opted the name of Jesus to do miracles.  In reply Jesus takes the opposite tack from that made famous by George W. Bush; “Whoever is not against us is for us,” Jesus says.  And again he moves the conversation to focus on the little ones (presumably still standing there), warning the students not to “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me”.

The narrative moves on and, in chapter ten, Jesus is queried about his view of marital divorce.  He makes it clear that marital relations were always meant to be honourable and enduring.  And again the writer of Mark moves us right back to the subject of children: people were bringing children to Jesus so he could bless them; the students didn’t like this and tried to stop them; Jesus rebukes them and says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

Q: What is my rank, my position in the group?  A: Consider the children.

Q: What do we do about competition from those who do not belong to our group?  A: Consider the children.

Q: What about abuse in an unequal relationship?  A: Consider the children.

What was that old Arabic proverb in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist?  “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”  In other words, this weaving that Mark does of adult social issues with the acceptance of and goodwill toward children is not a mistake; it is purposed.

Throughout the Gospel of Mark we find Jesus interacting with children and making the case that the reign of God is linked to something about them.  In the first world culture in which they lived children had no status, no property, no “rights” as we know them.  They were vulnerable and inferior.  Like the unclean, the poor and women in general, they are in a position of powerlessness, dominated by those in their environment who have status and authority.

It is from their position of weakness that children are an example to us of participation in the reign of God.  It is in our weakness that God’s reign can be made evident within us.

A prayer, by Joy Cowley*:

Dear God, I would like to become a little child and rest my soul in you.  I’m tired of the loneliness, tired of the struggle, I want to surrender but I don’t know how.  You see, I have this problem of being an adult.  I belong to the generation which makes decisions, plans, works, accepts responsibility, takes pride in being independent.  Adults are supposed to manage their lives.  They are concerned with owning things and making things happen, and they don’t like to look small or foolish.  Dear God, for a long time I have been living in the centre of a world which has prevented me from entering the Kingdom of Heaven.

Father God, Mother God, show me how to become your child.  I am aware of the advice that Jesus gives.  He does not say that we should remain in infancy.  He says that we should become as little children.  This tells me that I need to know the futility of independence before I can let go of it.  It is the letting go which is difficult.  I know you are there, waiting to give yourself to me, but I’m afraid to commit myself.  Please help me to loosen the grip on my pride so that I can hold out my arms to you and be enfolded in your love.

 

 

* The SPCK Book of Christian Prayer, p. 216

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I can identify

“Gordon!  What a lovely surprise – I didn’t expect to find you here!”

I was standing at a reception in the garden at Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, chatting with a few others who, like me, had been invited to a gathering of international faith representatives.  The posh voice behind me was clearly happy to have discovered “Gordon” in the crowd, the greeting loud enough to break up our conversation and cause our little group, and others, to turn in unison out of curiosity.

As I turned I became aware of an odd thing: it was me who was being addressed, the unexpected focal point of attention.  The look on the speaker’s face turned instantly from one of delight, to confusion, and then to flushed embarrassment.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said, “From the back you look just like Gordon Brown.”  There was a ripple of laughter from those standing around, realizing that I had been mistaken for the man who was then Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (and would soon be Prime Minister).

Later in my hotel room, before changing my suit for more relaxed clothing, I spent a moment trying to eye myself in the mirror from behind.  Yes, I thought, I can see the semblance.  But then, I do need a haircut.

Have you ever been mistaken for someone else?  Or worse, have you ever mistaken the identity of another?  I remember an awkward moment on a department store down escalator when the woman to whom I gave a couple of friendly waves on the up escalator turned out NOT to be the partner of my colleague at work.  Where to look as we drew near and then passed?

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus wanted to know from the disciples.   And they answered him, “some say you are John the Baptist; and others think you could be Elijah; and still others, one of the other prophets, maybe.  Then he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.””

John the Baptist was a obvious choice, a popular preacher beheaded by the regional king; some harboured the thought that John might come back to life and give the king his comeuppance.  Elijah?  A common belief was that the great prophet of old would make his own second appearance, ushering in the age of the Messiah.  But, barring those two, people were fairly sure Jesus was some kind prophet in his own right, or one of those from ages past making a return.

The question of Jesus’ identity didn’t seem to matter much to the crowd.  They still followed him around the Galilean countryside no matter what they thought about who he was.  Whoever he was, he had a power and authority that brought good to their lives.  The disciples themselves were still trying to work out exactly who Jesus was years after he had gone from them.

The truth be told, the followers of Jesus today, if we take in all the various streams and denominations of Christianity, let alone the millions of individual believers like you and me, also have vastly differing ideas about who Jesus is, in the sense of what he is like, what he stands for, and the significance of his life and teaching.  I confess I’m sometimes embarrassed or confused about the things my co-religionists say about Jesus, or the things they think are necessary to follow in his footsteps.  I’m sure I cause them equal embarrassment at times.

Does it matter, the understanding we have of Jesus?

Yes, actually, it does.  Bishop N.T. Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, says “One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship…outward to the world around.”  Some of the worst atrocities and injustices in human history have been carried out in the name of Christ, not by people who were simply looking for an excuse to do what they wanted, but by those who genuinely thought they were doing the will of God, who thought they were acting in accordance with the spirit of Christ.

One of the things that surprised me most when I was ordained and assumed responsibility for teaching in the church was the remarkably low level of knowledge many regular church-goers have with regard to the faith they affirm.  Aside from a weekly sermon (and who, really, is listening?) many Christians receive no further instruction or training, go no further than reciting and puzzling over the words of the Creed.

When I was the chaplain of Amsterdam’s NFL football team, the Admirals, I would sometimes pose this question to the guys in chapel: “What do you think would happen to me if you put me, as I am, in for a play, handing the ball to me to run with it?”  Invariably, these men would start to chuckle before they answered the question.  “Dog,” they would say, “you’d be dead!”

“Why?” I would plead, “I’m not too small am I?”

“No, you ain’t too small; you’re just totally unprepared.  You aren’t fit like we are, you don’t know the playbook, you haven’t trained.”

“And you?” I would ask, turning the tables, “what makes you think you are going to be able to make your journey of faith, walk successfully as a follower of Jesus, if you have done absolutely nothing to prepare for that endeavour?”

Calling the crowd to join his disciples, (Jesus) said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead.  You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am.  Don’t run from suffering, embrace it.  Follow me and I’ll show you how.  Self-help is no help at all.  Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.  What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?   (The Message, Eugene Peterson)

If we, like Peter, have professed our belief that Jesus is one anointed by God, that he is the one we intend to follow and be identified with, to learn from him and be the kind of person he was, we are going to have to apply ourselves.

I finish with the words of Brennan Manning:

The Carpenter did not simply refine Platonic and Aristotelian ethics, reorder Old Testament spirituality, or renovate the old creation. He brought a revolution. We must renounce all that we possess, not just most of it. We must give up our old way of life, not merely correct some slight aberrations in it. We are to be an altogether new creation, not simply a refurbished version of it. We are to be transformed from one glory to another, even into the very image of the Lord – transparent. Our minds are to be renewed by a spiritual revolution.   The primal sin, of course, is to go on acting as if it never happened. When we are hungry for God, we move and act, become alive and responsive; when we are not, we are dilettantes playing spiritual games. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance,” said Abraham Herschel. And intense inner desire to learn to think like Jesus is already the sign of God’s presence. The rest is the operation and activity of the Holy Spirit.

 

Comment Please

So, a year has gone by since I made a new year’s resolution to give up Facebook and start blogging instead.  I did both, but near the end went back to FB – too many people asking why I wasn’t available there.

I’ve made 77 posts on my blog.  Discounting the very short ones, copies of other writing, and the updates on Thomas, I’ve averaged about one entry every 5 days.  Not bad.  But some of them are pretty bad, if you catch my meaning.  Other entries I’ve been quite pleased with.  I promised myself never to delete a blog, though I have done some cosmetic work on them, here and there, after initial posting.  (I really wish I had an editor!)  And I’ve never yet had to reject a Comment.

With regards to Comments: for all my effort, I’ve only received 52 comments posted on the blog itself.  I’ve probably received three times that number via email.  I’m guessing many people prefer to share their thoughts privately with me.

Comments, anyone?  Which was your favorite entry?  Should I keep it up, or stop already?  Let me know what you think.  And, once again, thanks for reading!

Low Sky

Holland is pretty low.  I’m talking sea level low.  The ground on which our apartment building is built is somewhere around 2 meters (6 feet) below sea level.  The airport, Schiphol, is also entirely below sea level, by about 3 meters – and before the land there was drained the location was once the site of a naval battle.  Last year, after the crash of a Turkish Airline’s flight, I happened to read in the Seattle Times that the aircraft’s altimeter was showing a negative value, something the reporter called “impossible”.  I sent him a note to say that well, actually, in this country it technically is possible.

There are advantages to being so low.  The thing we refer to locally as “overcast”  is in many places known as “fog”.  We’re that low.  We get fog too, but  – I’m convinced – not nearly as much as we would if we were up a little higher.  The highest point in the country is in the furthest southeast corner, bordering Belgium and Germany, and comes in at the astonishing height of 322 meters.  That’s two meters lower than the Eiffel Tower.

Holland is also flat.  Really flat.  I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before I came here just how low and flat the country was.  I mean, if there are huge networks of canals, and millions of bicycles, it must be flat.  And if  there is land reclaimed from the sea, it must be low.  One does get used to it, of course.  And the landscape would be quite beautiful, if only one could see it.  But there is a real dearth of useful vantage points.  What this country needs is just one really big hill from which one can take in all the flatness.  But it would be shrouded in fog.

Did I mention the wind?  It’s really windy here.  I have a friend who says she had constant headaches when she first arrived, until she got used to the wind.  So all those windmills they built in the olden days, that wasn’t done just because the things were so quaint and photogenic.  They actually were very useful – for pumping water out of flat fields, for milling grain, and for sawing logs.  Nowadays the countryside is sprouting hundreds of new, modern “windmills”.  All the electricity we use at home is guaranteed to come from 100% wind energy.  Cool, huh?

The wind is really obnoxious when cycling.  What we don’t have in the way of hills to make cycling a challenge, we more than make up for with wind.  Ancient mariners used to believe that sailing against the prevailing wind was against God’s will.  If God wanted you to go that way he would have provided the proper wind to take you there!

I fully agree, as long as the principle applies to cycling too.  At least, cycling against the wind has a tremendously diabolical effect on me.