At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!…‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.
Matthew 18:1-7, 10
Aren’t children wonderful! Jesus thought so. The longer I live, the older I become, the more I know I need to be around them. Children inspire me and teach me, and remind me about something I have lost. But it was what our four-year-old granddaughter Hayden said that really has me thinking and wondering today.
This morning Hayden told her father: “Every time I try and go to sleep at night Jesus keeps talking to me”. It was just a few months ago that Hayden also announced to her dad that God had been talking into her chest. When dad asked what God was saying, she knowingly replied, “God said that He loves me”.
You will grant me that I think our granddaughter wonderful and exceptional! But I believe that God also talked to you and me when we were children and reveals Himself to children today. I think of stories about my father who, at age four, had such a powerful experience of God he was moved to tears. I think of Hildegard von Bingen who, at age three, “saw so great a brightness that my soul trembled”. And there is the American Quaker John Woolman who told that before his seventh birthday he knew “the workings of divine love”. History brims with extraordinary stories of children doing serious business with God.
Edward Robinson was Director of the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford where they studied over 5,000 people and their experience of God. Pondering their stories, Robinson was led to publish The Original Vision: A Study of Religious Experience of Childhood. Robinson was struck by the people’s vivid childhood experiences and believed that children were hardwired to experience God.
Along with Robinson’s work there is a large and growing body of empirical research from all over the globe about young children’s experience of God. Yet adults tend to minimize or dismiss the profound and deep spiritual experiences of children. German philosopher and theologian Dorothee Sölle writes of children’s experience of God in her book Silent Cry. Sölle observes:
Our habit of leaving childhood behind us as quickly as possible thoroughly uproots such childhood experiences for people of our culture. We then label those experiences as craziness or silliness and then hide or trivialize them in terms of our ‘being nothing but…’ formulae. Such experiences are explained away as an overactive imagination, indigestion, overexcitement, and the like. By banishing them from our children, we destroy them within ourselves at the same moment.
By banishing them from our children we are no longer able to hear the angels sing. In our desire to “put away childish things” we adult-erate and rationalize away a world that is big with God. We explain away daily epiphanies and moment of grace. But if that’s what it means to be grown up, please let me be a child again!
I have recently discovered the 17th century theologian and pastor Thomas Traherne. In his book, Centuries of Meditations, which C. S. Lewis called “almost the most beautiful book in English”, Traherne recalls childhood’s graced experience of God:
He in our childhood with us walks,
And with our thoughts mysteriously He talks;
He often visiteth our minds…
Traherne concludes his memories of childhood’s primal state with this observation: “Our Saviour’s meaning, when He said, ‘He must be born again and become a little child that will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven’ is deeper far than is generally believed.” Yes, far, far deeper than generally believed! And only a child would really understand.
O Lord, make me as a little child! Enthrall me again with your love. Speak into my chest so that I might not sleep! Amen.
Grace and peace,
photo by mrcharly