By: David H. May, Rector
Some years ago, I stumbled onto a little spiritual practice that I’ve ended up adopting. And when I say, ‘stumbled upon’, what I mean is that God showed me something about myself that I didn’t really want to look at but sure needed to. But as it happens sometimes, catching a glimpse about yourself like that brings along with it a gift from God that shows you how to live differently. And that gift was this little spiritual practice that I want to tell you about.
So, here’s the background. I realized that sometimes I get annoyed and cross with people, and that sometimes – and this is the really bad part – being cross and being annoyed can eventually turn into not really listening to a person anymore. It’s not that it happened all that often. But often enough. So that’s not good. It’s really not. Because, for me at least, to stop listening means that I’m way too close to closing the book on a person and forgetting that their life is a part of God’s great big story for all of us that our lives are happening in.
So when I got a glimpse of this and what I was doing, it sort of knocked a ‘charlie horse’ into my soul, and made me realize that I was sick and tired of doing that kind of thing. The truth is, actually, this realization happened while I was listening to someone who was at that very moment annoying me and making me cross and making me think about closing the book on them. And just then, this thought came to me – from out of nowhere – to see this person in front of me in a different way. The person at the time was probably 78 or 80 years old. And I suddenly thought about seeing them when they were a child, and I thought, ‘remember, there was a day when this person was three years old and she was wandering around in her back yard and suddenly saw a big bug in the dirt and shouted, ‘wow, look at that bug! Oh my gosh that’s the most amazing bug that’s ever been!’ Now maybe that seems like a weird thought to have and ever weirder to share in a sermon with you. But it’s the thought that came to me and the thought that set something free in me. And I suddenly blurted out to this older woman, ‘oh my gosh, you’re great!’ and gave her a great big hug. So sometimes, to this day, I try to see someone as a three-year-old. That’s my little spiritual practice. And somehow that thought is like Jesus putting that person into your arms and asking you to bless them, just like he does.
Jesus was a master teacher and when he took a child into his arms in front of this group of great big grown up bickering men (who’d just been caught arguing with each other about who had the most impressive resume), he knew what he was doing. And whether they really understand what he is trying to show them or not, it’s something they couldn’t forget or get over and which we’re still talking about.
“ ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
This past Thursday, I sat in on the chapel service for children of St. Mary’s Preschool. Chapel that morning was for the little ones, some who had really just turned three. Some were a little further along into their threes, but not much. One of them lit the candles and two others rang two bells to signal that it was time to begin. They were led in a song and in a prayer and told a beautiful story about Jesus who is their Good Shepherd. It was great. Little kids are amazing. When they’re that little they sort of do what they’re told and they sort of don’t. I don’t think they can really help it. Almost everything that comes into view for them is utterly fascinating. They haven’t learned yet to be ho-hum about the miracle of life and the miracle of their own life. I sat there with this great big grin on my face and big-eyed for the whole chapel. It’s pretty much impossible not to smile. Just a couple of little snapshots from that morning. When chapel is over, they’re supposed to take one another’s hands and hold onto each other as they walk back in a line. Towards the front of the line, I saw a little girl reach out and swat a little guy to get his attention and say, ‘you’re supposed to hold my hand!’ She grabbed his hand and said, ‘ok, do it right!’. Another snapshot was a little girl staring out one of these large windows, utterly entranced and awed by something she was seeing. There were things going on around her but she was someplace else, utterly transfixed, lost in wonder, love and praise. And for a second, I could’ve sworn that she was glowing. And then, there was a spontaneous, exuberant group hug that just suddenly happened out of nowhere. First there were two and then three and then four and five leaped into the clump of hugging.
Now I don’t want to get overly sentimental about children. They are all of those beautiful things. But they’re also annoying, exhausting, trip-wires of sudden overwhelming emotion. And they can hurt each other just like any of the rest of us.
But when Jesus takes a child into his arms he is trying to find a way to loosen the grip we have on what we think it means to be great (all the calculation and pomposity and score-keeping of that) and help us see what it means to be great in his Father’s kingdom. One of the keys for our understanding, is to see that for a child, the whole world still lies before them. The world is all a future that is coming where each day is filled with brand new, never-before-seen experiences and wonder. Every day brings something new, like a door being opened onto a world you have never seen before. This is true, even for those of us who are a little longer in the tooth than those three-year olds in chapel.
Martin Smith has written that “the Spirit of God comes from God’s future. The Spirit does not come to us in a pipeline from the past but blows upon us from the future. The Spirit is God ‘who is to come’. To be like a child means that I stop insisting on what I am and loosen my grip on what I have been, but continually open myself in prayer to what God is inviting me to become and recognize that I can be born again – and again and again. That I am still malleable, new buds appear, new gifts can be bestowed. My mind can change, my horizons open up, I am like a child educable, still discovering, still in formation, unfinished and barely begun, and again and again in prayer I praise God in the words, ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.’
Like this very day that is still before us, brimming with new life we’ve never lived before.
Jesus brought a child to himself, into his own arms, to help us see where greatness lies, and to see ourselves taken into his own arms too, and to receive his blessing that gives us grace to see ourselves and one another in God’s own great story, that, as you know, is very far from being over. Amen.