I first met Jesus at the altar of New Providence Missionary Baptist Church when I was five years old. I walked up the aisle when the invitation was given at the closing program of Vacation Bible School. Though the ladies in the church must have clucked and cooed over the little heathen child who got saved during VBS, I just wanted to pet Jesus’ parrot.
At least I thought it belonged to him. As it turns out, the colorful bird belonged to a member of the church, who brought it in as part of the closing act to entertain the children. At least on that last point, their plan worked.
Vacation Bible School was likely just a week of free babysitting for my parents, who didn’t attend church themselves at the time. I imagine they had to wrestle me into a full set of clothes for the week’s activities, since my summer wardrobe consisted mostly of shorts. It was the summer before I started kindergarten, and I went shoeless and shirtless like my brother as often as I was allowed.
Most summers after that I went to some version of that first VBS, often with friends or family members, and especially after my mom went back to work. I learned about the Bible some, drank my weight in Koolaid, and discovered that Red Rover was more dangerous than our parents realized. During all those years, though I didn’t really know Jesus, I thought highly of Him because of the dear folks who made believing in him seem like such a wonder.
Eight years after that first encounter, I ran into Jesus again at that same altar (well, same church, different building on the other side of the street) when I responded to another invitation. This time, I walked the aisle with my mom and brother, Gerry, as the organist played all seven verses of “Just As I Am.” This time, I didn’t just meet Jesus, I believed in him, dedicated my life to him, and committed to follow him … even if he didn’t actually have a parrot.
I’ve always counted that day in 1984, when I was 13 years old, as the beginning of my Christian faith. It was my entrance into belonging to a church and practicing the disciplines of the faith. It was when I first identified as a Christian and found my own story nestled in the midst of God’s story as revealed in the Bible. But I’ve never doubted for a minute that those earlier encounters with Jesus helped form me spiritually. Especially when I consider Jesus’ admonition that “unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
As I’ve been circling around the theme of wonder for the last several months, I keep coming back to this idea of child-like faith. Because who understands delight and curiosity about the world more than kids? I like how Rachel Carson describes it in her essay “The Sense of Wonder.” To children, she writes, the “world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.”
How quickly we lose that sense of awe as we grow up, how quickly the “that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood,” writes Carson. And I think Jesus would agree, especially when he tells his disciples that “the kingdom belongs to such as these.”
But could there be more to Jesus’ words about childlike faith than just an openness to mystery and astonishment?
For one, children aren’t just open-hearted, they’re open-mouthed. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday, and the children were singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” the chief priests and the scribes asked Jesus, “Do You hear what these children are saying?”
Of course, Jesus heard what they were saying, and he was encouraging them, because, as he explained it, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies [God] ha[s] prepared praise for [Him]self” (Matthew 21:15-16). Jesus wants us to be like children because children often tell it straight when adults tiptoe around the truth. It’s why we’re careful what we say around the children because we’re afraid they will blurt it out at the most inopportune time. Jesus saw this quality as admirable not shameful.
Also, children serve as a model for how we are to care for each other. When Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea (Matt. 18:6),” he seems to be saying that our care for one another should be so tender that even a child would not be harmed. If we can care for the small and vulnerable among us, then surely we can keep the rest of us from stumbling.
Finally, when Jesus says that “whoever receives one such child in My name receives me” (Matt. 18:5), could it be that he’s making a larger point? That there’s actually no one we shouldn’t receive in His name. See, children have little to offer us. They’re needy and messy and often loud. Yes, we love our own children, and some of us even love other people’s children. But most of us would agree that when we welcome children, we’re basically accepting the burden for their care. Jesus says, “BINGO! That’s how I want you to feel about everyone. When you take responsibility for each other, even little children, you’re doing my work.”
In her book, When You Receive a Child, July Brown Hull says, “Unselfconscious, bothersome, unpredictable–children have another similarity to Jesus: While they are fully human, they do not fit tidily into the totally adult world any better than Jesus did.” Reflecting on these words in her book The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for Delighting in God, Christine Aroney-Sine says these childlike qualities are “gifts from God that reflect something of the kingdom and the intrusiveness of Jesus as he enters our lives.”
In this difficult time in our nation as we adapt to the new normal of COVID-19, as we reel from the news of more black men being murdered in their own neighborhoods, as we enter another contentious election cycle that’s sure to bring out the worst in people, what we need more than ever is a child-like faith. Yes, a faith that makes room for delight and whimsy, but also faith that isn’t afraid or ashamed to tell the truth, faith that cares for the small and vulnerable among us, and maybe most importantly, faith that takes responsibility for others, especially those who need our voice and deserve our care.
I’m thankful I met Jesus when I did, so I can remember what it was like to get to know the God of the universe as a child. Because now, more than ever, I need that child-like faith again. We all do.