The following is audio and text from the teaching given by Leah on October 11, 2015. Feel free to listen online, download, or read. This teaching is the third in our fall series, "Sailing the Blue Ocean."
Over the last few weeks, Peter Pan has become a character residing in the Martens family imagination. I think it started a few weeks ago when I was perusing through Netflix for a family film that would hold our whole crew’s attention, and I stumbled upon Hook, the imagined sequel to the classic Pan stories. So we watched as a family Disney’s Peter Pan. And then another week we watched Hook. At the library earlier this week, the girls spotted J.M. Barrie’s classic book, and so we’ve checked it out and started reading the stories together. The girls tell me that at night they dream, or at least hope to dream of Peter, of Wendy, of mermaids and fairies. And just last night, I took Elliott to see Hollywood’s latest take on the story, Pan, a rendering of how Peter came to be Peter Pan in the first place.
Elliott is nine years old - he is at prime Peter Pan age. He has all kinds of capacity now that is beyond his younger sisters. He can conceive adventures and to some extent embody them, without the burden of responsibility that will come in a handful of years. And as he plays with his friends and plots his adventures, there is the sense that that kind of play could go on forever. Why grow up?
Beyond it’s fantastical world of magic, Peter Pan, at it’s heart taps into a paradox that many of us feel around aging. As children, we can’t wait to become adults. We dream about the jobs we will have, we play at being a doctor, a singer, a fireman. We play at shopping, and driving, and taking care of babies - all the things we anticipate doing as grownups. And then we become grown-ups, and we long for the simplicity and innocence of childhood. But we can’t go back. We can only go forward. The ticking crocodile of time pushes all of us forward.
Well, today, we’re gonna explore this paradox of aging, growing, developing more, as we continue in our series on Blue Ocean distinctives. Thus far we’ve talked about our framework being Solus Jesus, or “Jesus Alone” with the metaphor of Centered Set being a helpful picture of how a Jesus Alone framework might work. And today, we tackle the third distinctive. Our approach to spiritual development is childlike faith.
Now for many of us, when we first hear the term “spiritual development” what comes to mind might be along the lines of Adult Sunday School. Where is the place where the grown-ups in the room get the important information, along the lines of what’s taught in seminary? Where do we learn more about Biblical scholarship, or maybe systematic theology, or church history? And if acquiring this kind of knowledge is the path to spiritual development, then by implication, the more of that important knowledge we’ve acquired, the more spiritually mature we must be. Perhaps, if we’re honest, we expect that this increase of knowledge will lead to promotion in God’s kingdom, to status, to leadership opportunities. Surely, if we were to grow in this kind of knowledge and be offered these kind of positions, that would be a good sign that we were becoming more and more spiritually mature.
But is that actually Jesus’ view of spiritual development? If we’re going to live out a framework that focuses on Jesus alone as its authority, then it makes sense that our approach to spiritual growth would come from him. And if we look at what he seems to think about spiritual development, we find surprising things like this in Matthew 18.
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
So in this story, the disciples approach Jesus with a question, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Now I think, given what we know about the disciples and how they relate to Jesus, it's fair to assume that this is not a hypothetical question. This is not a “theoretically, what kind of being might be the greatest in your kingdom?” question. These guys are looking for Jesus to settle a score, to make a judgement, to side with one of them against the others.
But Jesus doesn’t want to play that game. He is not going to commend any of them. No one is getting a promotion that day. Instead, he admonishes all of them by giving them an example they need to emulate. But this example is not a heroic leader or other prominent public figure. The example he chooses is one of the lowest of the low. He calls forward a little child.
Now to fully appreciate what Jesus is doing here, it might be helpful for us to remember that the culture Jesus was living in was very different from ours in many ways, and one of these ways had to do with the status of children. We live in the culture of the “Baby on Board” signs. Danielle and Astro Teller are a married parents and professionals who’ve recently written on this. As they point out: Nobody would have placed such a sign on a car if it were not already understood by society that the life of a human achieves its peak value at birth and declines thereafter. A toddler is almost as precious as a baby, but a teenager less so, and by the time that baby turns fifty, it seems that nobody cares much anymore if someone crashes into her car. You don’t see a lot of vehicles with placards that read, “Middle-aged accountant on board.”
So for many in our contemporary context, children are seen as the thing that should be society’s highest priority. But Jesus’ world was pretty different. It wasn’t that parents’ didn’t care for their kids, certainly they did just as we do, but life was set up differently. For one thing, infant mortality was very high; they simply didn’t have the capacity to carefully preserve the lives of their children in the same way that we do. There were no vaccinations, for instance. Even for those kids who survived infancy, only half of them would live to adulthood. It was a vulnerable space to be born into. In addition, family life was a difficult balance with economic implications.
Children were their parents’ personal safety nets, their hope for their own care in the future, but it was a tenuous system, with no guarantees. In their youth, they were also a drain on their family’s meager resources, and so children were basically regarded as lesser members of society without rights or status. And this would have made Jesus’ example of a child as the model of greatest in his kingdom particularly striking.
When Jesus brings forward this child he makes two points about the child. First, it’s an instruction. Become like this child. Copy this child. Make yourself like this person. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” There is something about the humility of this child that you need to emulate.
But that’s not the only point he makes here, is it? The second point is an identification. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Jesus is saying “I am like this child”. He’s identifying with the child.
Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus reiterates this theme. He tells his followers that when they feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, they are feeding, welcoming, visiting clothing Jesus himself. ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ he says.
When Jesus sees the least of these, when he sees the children and those who like them are society’s most vulnerable, he doesn’t just see them. He doesn’t just feel affection for them. He identifies with them. And he wants his followers to as well.
Of course this isn’t the only place where Jesus makes clear he thinks well of kids. He goes on in that same chapter to describe how bad it would be for anyone to cause one of these little ones to stumble, he is clearly very protective of them. And in the next chapter, we get this famous episode.
13 Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.
14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
And let’s not forget Jesus prayer in Matthew 11, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.”
Nor can we forget his word to the pharisee Nicodemus who came to him in the night in John 3. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (born from above). So it’s definitely a theme for Jesus.
But in our first passage, in Matthew 18, Jesus isn’t speaking to pharisees. He isn’t speaking to scribes. He isn’t speaking to religious people who’ve been burying their heads in books and ignoring the people around them, though he has plenty to say about that elsewhere as well. But here, he is speaking to his closest followers. He is speaking to the guys who left their homes and families and jobs to follow him around the countryside. And they likely think, “If anyone is doing this right, if anyone has what it takes to make it in the kingdom Jesus is establishing and be a leader, it’s in this group. We’ve earned our stripes here, right?” And yet Jesus answers their question, “who is the greatest?” by saying, you need to change. I am like this child and you need to be too. So why? What was he trying to get at?
Now, I just want to get real for a moment and say out loud, “kids are not perfect little angels,” right? I mean, I have three. And while I have a passionate mama bear don’t mess-with-my-kids kinda love for them, it’s also true that sometimes I don’t like them very much. I mean, even the babies can be cuddly and sweet, but they can also have colic. Kids can be loud. They can be completely self-centered. They fight with one another over the stupidest trivialities. They don’t tend to let me shower or pee by myself. And they can be wily and manipulative even at a very young age.
I remember when Elliott was around four he was having terrible tantrums, like really really off-the-map-bad, and in an attempt to curb them, I tried to tap into a spirit of empathy on his part. “When you kick mommy, it hurts me.” I would say. “When you scream and slam the door at me, it makes me sad. “ And though I was yearning to appeal to the sweet, loving nature, I was sure was within him, my pleas seemed to have the opposite effect. It took a friend with older kids to lovingly point out my mistake before things changed. “By telling him how he’s hurting you, you’re giving him all this power he’s never had before. And he likes that power and so he’s using it against you.” It wasn’t until Jason and I could respond without any emotion, as if the tantrums didn’t bother us at all, that they finally started to subside. Essentially, my child had figured out how to hurt and manipulate me and was doing it on purpose. That's not pretty.
So is self-centeredness and manipulation what Jesus was inviting his followers to adopt? I think we all know the answer must be no. That would be exactly the kind of immature young sibling behavior the disciples are displaying. Clearly what Jesus has in mind is something else.
Jesus says he is like a child. He identifies with them. But he doesn’t have the pettiness of a child. He doesn’t have the self-concern or the inpatience. And yet when he says “I am like this child,” it intuitively feels true. Jesus is not infantile or immature, but his maturity has a unique childlike quality. Jesus is the source of all wisdom, he is wisdom embodied, his capacity to understand cosmic realities is immense, and yet his wisdom lives in concert with this child-like lack of ambition and pretense. He has the intense power, power to heal the sick, to raise the dead, but he will not assert his power to assuage his own pride. Instead he is like the widened old sage with a twinkle in his eye. He is like Gandalf, the wizard with the fireworks, come to life. Or Yoda. How does he do that? What’s the secret?
I wonder if, at the heart of all of this, the tension we feel between what it means to be an adult and what it means to be a child is really a bounded set problem. I have the time I’m a child, and the time I’m a grown up. They are clear and distinct. But I think as many of us have discovered as we have aged that the categories seem to break down. We become aware that just because we have a drivers license or a car or a job, doesn’t mean we have all the answers. We get really good at faking it, but we bear the burden of every decision, wondering if it was right, wondering if it was wrong, secretly aware that much of what we do we’re making up as we go along. Yet here we are, in this bounded set called adulthood, so we best act like we know what we’re doing, and put the childish stuff away.
But maybe there is no bounded set. Maybe we’re all somewhere on the spectrum of growth and development, and maybe by putting aside those qualities we associate with children when we become adults, we’re actually missing a key part of what we need to navigate the life we want to live, to continue to grow and blossom and develop.
If there is truth to this, I think it is a problem we have had as human beings for a long time. We have a history of trying to take on the burden of a grown-up life on our own, apart from God. If you look carefully, you know this is so, because we see it in the kinds of stories people have been telling about what it means to be human. Story is a powerful thing. The right story, without directly involving us at all, can tell us exactly who we are. Now I’m gonna take a moment to tell you this story, and I’m using some creative license to do it. My hope is we might here it fresh and in a new way, so I invite you to enter this story with me.
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful place where the colors were ultra-vivid, and the smells were delightfully fragrant and the beauty of the natural world defied description. There were animals that were smaller than the tiniest baby mouse and animals that were more enormous than the most enormous elephants. There was cold, clear water, and sweet smelling grass, and flowers of every color under the sun.
And there was a boy and a girl, and they were the best of friends and the most beloved of companions. And they lived in joy and satisfaction, cared for kindly and lovingly by their Great Parent, the maker of all that surrounded them.
Their Great Parent loved the children very much and so the Parent gave them food to eat, and animals to play with and brought all other manner of delights their way, dreaming up ways to tickle the boy and the girl with laughter and joy. And the Parent played with them, and laughed with them, and walked with them through the gardens in the cool of the day. And the Great Parent gave them special fruit from a special tree. The fruit was sweet to the taste, and it’s juice wet and sticky as it ran down their cheeks, but each sticky morsel brought strength and health and peace into their bones, for it was the fruit of the tree of life. And they ate from this tree and it was the most satisfying thing the children had ever tasted. But the tree of life was not the only attractive fruit tree the parent had made.
The Great Parent told the boy and the girl that the parent would love for the children to enjoy this fruit, along with the fruit of any other plant or tree they could find, except for one. In the parent’s grove of trees, there was only one tree that the Parent said was not good for eating. This was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “Do not eat from this tree,” the loving Parent told the children. “If you do, you will certainly die.”
Now there were many interesting animals living in the special place, but one animal was particularly sneaky, and that was the snake. The snake slithered up to the little girl, “Did the Parent say you can’t eat from the Parent’s trees?”
“Oh no, we can eat from the trees,” the girl said. “Of course we can, silly snake. There is only one tree that the Parent doesn’t want us to touch. If we touch that one, the Parent says we will die.”
“Oh surely you won’t die,” the snake told the girl. “No, the Parent told you not to eat it because the Parent knows if you eat from that tree, you will have the Parent’s special knowledge. You will know good and evil and you will be just like the Parent.”
And hearing this from the snake, the girl saw the fruit on this tree in a new light. It suddenly looked particularly yummy. It suddenly sounded particularly satisfying, and it promised a special kind of magic. And so the girl reached out, and pulled a piece off the tree, and then, just like that, she ate some of the fruit. And she gave some to the boy, and he ate the fruit too. And in that moment, something wonderful and terrible happened all at once. The boy and the girl were transformed. In an instant, they grew up. And it was wonderful because they had power and capacity to see and understand things they hadn’t understood before. And it was terrible because they couldn’t un-see what they had seen. They couldn’t go backwards. Their childhood was over. And though they had power, there was a weight to that power. It felt heavy on their shoulders, heavier than they could have imagined. And they knew that something was wrong.
And when the Great Parent found the woman and the man, the Parent was deeply saddened. For the Parent had only wanted to feed the children life, but the children had wanted to eat something else, something the Parent knew would eventually crush the children under it’s heavy weight. But this was the choice that the children had made. The children did not want to stay the Parent’s little children. They wanted to be very grown up. They wanted to make their own decisions, make their own judgements, make their own way in the world. And now, that’s exactly what they’d have to do. So, with a heavy heart, the Parent sent the man and the woman on their way. But the Great Parent knew this was not the end of the story.
Genesis 3 was a story that told the Jewish people about their existential crisis. It spoke to the people of why they were separated from the source of rich, abundant life. It pointed to theheavy burden humans bear as they try to run their own lives apart form God, judging themselves and one another as a result. But Jesus’ life is evidence that the story didn’t end there. The Great Parent knew that the children couldn’t navigate all of the wild world on their own. The Parent knew that the effort to do so would bring stress, would bring competition, would bring hatred, would bring violence, would bring death. And so the Parent became a child. A child who lived and grew and matured in the wild world but never lost his connection to the Great Parent. The child from the day he was born to the day he died remained ever a Son. A son who received life and comfort and joy and hope from his connection to his loving parent, despite the very real troubles that came his way.
It was an odd concept when Jesus came on the scene, to call Yahweh your father. It made lots of people that encountered Jesus very uncomfortable. Yahweh was the Almighty. He was the King. He was the creator, sure. But Father? Abba? This was bizarre. Maybe even blasphemous.
But the theme of Jesus as Son is unrelenting. It's everywhere. It’s woven throughout the story. Jesus is miraculously conceived, born a child of Mary and the Holy Spirit. As a young boy, Jesus, lingers at the temple in Jerusalem for days, his earthly parents become worried sick. And when they finally discover him and want to berate him, his response is without guile. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Fast-forward to his baptism, when Jesus comes out of the water and the moment is punctuated by a voice from heaven, “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.” When his followers ask Jesus how to pray, he starts with, call him Abba, Daddy, Father. When people asked him how he did all these wondrous things, he said, “I’m just doing what the Father is doing.” And when he is praying his torturous prayer in Gethsemane the night before his death, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you can, take the cup away. But not my will, but yours be done.” And finally his last words on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus’ whole identity when he walked the earth was wrapped in his identity as the Son of the Father. He is not striving to see what position he’s gonna be given. He is not working to find out if he’s gonna be the greatest in the coming kingdom. He is totally satisfied with his status as somebody’s precious child. This is what matters to Jesus. Jesus is satisfied to be the Son of Yahweh, and he invites us into this place too.
So practically speaking, what does it look like? If we want to grow in faith in Jesus by growing in this kind of childlike faith, where do we begin? I want to look at three angles, three facets, of what it means to be “like a child”. These are just three ways we can learn from some of the younger developing people around us, and I think each of them presents an invitation for growth that will bring us the sweet juice of the fruit of life that our Great Parent wants for us.
The first facet is childlike attachment. Earlier this week, as I’ve been ruminating on all of this, I turned to little Gwen who was sitting on my lap while I was doing some work. And I asked her, “Gwen, what makes you happy?” And do you know what she said?
“Papa.” (My Dad)
“Nana, what else?”
“Daddy, and Elliott, and Junia, and Mommy.” That’s what makes her happy. That’s what gives her joy; the people she's attached to.
Developmental psychologists will tell you relational attachment is a fundamental building block of our psyche. Newborn babies are wired to bond, and there are plenty of studies to demonstrate that if small children in that prime bonding-attachment phase of development are deprived of human contact, or positive bonding, it’s very difficult for them to recover. It’s very hard for them ever to fill that void and to have healthy, loving relationships, the kind of relationships that Genesis 2 speaks to when God says, “it is not good for the human to be alone.”
But when it works, when young children attach healthfully, their attachments are their whole world. Their joy is caught up in the safety of those attached relationships. Their security is in them. And that security gives them the confidence to begin to look outside of their little haven, to begin to explore the world around them, knowing that this safe space is protected and they can return for comfort any time the bigger world is frightening or overwhelming.
Isn’t that exactly the kind of attachment Jesus in his connection to the father? When life got overwhelming, he withdrew to a solitary place to be with Abba. He didn’t try to escape his pain, or drown it in wine. He took it to Abba.
I think he wants us to do the same thing. To cultivate a childlike attachment to God, and to those around us. To allow those relationships to be the primary sources of life and fulfillment, over and above the other sources of them in our lives. And if we struggle with attachment, if we have had difficult connections to our parents ourselves, perhaps, I think Jesus wants to heal those broken places so that we an experience the benefit and security of a connection to a loving parent.
And this leads right into the second facet of childlike connection with God that I think Jesus was inviting us into: childlike dependence. What do I mean by that? Let’s do a little imagination exercise.
Imagine you are a three year old child - you are a little Milo or Gwen. And you go with your loving parents on the BART, and ride into the heart of San Francisco, and you get off in a busy part of the city, Union Square or the Embarcadero. And then you look up at your parents once you’re there, and you say, “OK, Mom and Dad. This is it. I’m good. You can go on your way. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me; I can take it from here. I’ll get a job and get an apartment, and I’ll manage just fine. And don’t worry, I’ll come visit you at Christmas.”
This is a ridiculous thing to imagine, isn’t it? A child of three trying to make it on their own in the big city. It’s proposterous. But perhaps Jesus’ admonition in this passage begs the question, “isn't this exactly the crazy kind of thing you and I are trying to do every day?” What if you and I are in fact that child of three, trying to navigate a world that is way beyond our capacity to handle on our own? What if Jesus is encouraging us to simply grab the hand of our loving parent who is standing at our side, and let that parent help us navigate the numerous challenges that come our way? What if this capacity of a child to hang on to their parents had when they are aware that they are in over their head is a real gift to us?
When you think about it, this is something Jesus was doing all the time. Do we really think he didn’t feel stress? Think about it, people are pressing in on him from every side, asking to be healed. People in power mistrust him and are starting to spread lies behind his back. The people he;s investing most deeply in can’t stop bickering amongst themselves, and don’t seem to get what he’s there to do. But in the midst of it, he’s connecting with his Father. He’s looking at the concerns around him and he’s saying , “Abba, where are you today? What work are you doing today? How can I be about joining you in that?” What would it look like for us to handle our stresses the same way?
Childlike dependence means letting go of the need to prove anything to Jesus. It means letting go of the need to show our parent how capable we are. It means identifying and naming our real needs. It means asking for help when we’re in over our heads. It means asking our Heavenly Father to walk through whatever battles our day brings with a child’s trust that our parent cares for us. In Jeremiah 32, God says this about his children: “I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them… I will rejoice in doing them good…with all my heart and soul.” Childlike dependence puts God’s promise to the test by allowing Him to lead us forward, believing he desires to do good for us, to lead us to good places where we will be secure, even if the journey is challenging.
Finally, the third facet of childlike-ness I think Jesus is inviting us to embrace is this: childlike wonder.
Liz Wiseman is a Silicon Valley leadership consultant and the president of the Wiseman Group. She’s done extensive research on management and is the author of three best-selling books on the topic. She also teaches leadership to executives of major corporations around the world. Her recent clients include Apple, Disney, Facebook, Gap, Microsoft, and Twitter, just to name a few. So she knows some stuff..
Well, Liz Wiseman recently gave a TedX talk at the University of Nevada, and in it, she told some of her story, about having this wonderful job at Oracle that was really more than she could handle when she was fresh out of school, but a number of years later, was something she had settled into, and was, frankly, no longer very excited by. And so, in her talk, Liz describes how, in an attempt to clear her head, Wiseman and her family took a family vacation to Hawaii with their three small children. And a few days into the stressful trip, because traveling with kids is usually stressful, Wiseman decides she’s ready to try to slow down to her youngest child’s pace, and follow her three year-old as they make their way to breakfast to meet her husband and the two older children. Here’s the rest of her story. (watch from 7:40 - 11:42)
“What does what we know get in the way of what we don’t know…but need to learn?” Interesting question, isn’t it? Wiseman in her talk goes on to explain how rookies have an advantage that veterans don’t. They actually bring more expertise to bear on a problem, five times more, because they’re aware of what they don’t know, and perhaps a little desperate. Their eagerness to learn and their lack of established patterns keeps their thinking fresh and creative. And they also have more fun. They are able to engage in work more like Liz Wiseman’s three year old son, discovering koi fish and allowing his fingers to be nibbled in the process.
Part of the problem with “adulthood” is we think we know what we need to know, but I think Jesus, by inviting us to lay down that bounded set, is inviting us to stay on the path of wonder. Stay curious. Yes, learn everything you can about the Bible, about church history, if you like, or about natural selection, whatever draws your curiosity. But do it from a place of curiosity, from an eagerness to grow, not a desire to master knowledge and assert your mastery over others. How do we do this? Ask more questions, for starts. Did you know that the average adult asks two questions a day, and the average young child a hundred. Maybe a few more than two would be helpful. And if you want to grow in this more, try incorporating these two words more in your thought life and your prayer life: I wonder. I wonder why I feel the way I do right now. I wonder why the squirrels keep coming back to that same tree. I wonder how God feels about the argument I just had with my spouse or my child. I wonder.
C.S. Lewis once said in defense of children’s literature: “Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term,” he said, “cannot be adult themselves ... When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown-up.” Maybe as we end today, we could end with that invitation. To put away our fear of childishness. To invite our loving Parent into it. And to humble ourselves enough that we might take that parents hand and walk forward into the childlike faith he Has for each of us. Amen.