Over the last month we have had the privilege of looking after two of our grandchildren a little more often. One of the challenges of the lockdown has been keeping in touch with family and friends. I use the word ‘touch’ deliberately because touch is such an important part of our lives. You can talk and see each other but you can’t hug on zoom, you can’t lift a little child up when they cry, you can’t hold them in your arms and sing them to sleep. So it’s been a privilege to have the opportunity as ‘care-givers’ to take on this role, to read stories and play with our grandchildren, to feed, bath and put them to bed. Yes, it’s also been tiring but we are happy to do this both to support our daughter and to build a trusting relationship with our grandsons!
Children have a humanising impact on us. There is the story of a woman in one congregation who had the reputation of having a hard, irritable and judgemental personality, always quick to make critical remarks. One Sunday a young family came to church and sat in her pew, which was often left only to her. She bristled, but as the service had begun had no time to say anything. Halfway through the first reading the couple’s little toddler climbed up on her lap and snuggled in, and that’s when everything changed in that congregation. It changed because for the first time in that woman’s life it seemed as though someone wanted and needed her and drew out, not criticism but a response of love. From that time on she became an adopted grandmother and it seemed to many in the congregation that her face softened.
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark the disciples get a real serve from Jesus. They were becoming ‘gate keepers’ – and preventing parents from bringing their children to Jesus that he might touch them and bless them. Maybe they were trying to protect Jesus from annoying little children so he could focus on teaching adults. But Jesus was not just cross, he was indignant! Jesus turns on his disciples and says in no uncertain terms, “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
We have several accounts in the gospels of Jesus prioritising children and presenting them as a symbol of true discipleship, which would have been completely foreign to people in that culture and time. Children were to be seen and not heard. They had no status whatsoever. Jesus however reverses that and holds them up as precious and valued.
I often hear the phrase that children are the future of the church, and I want to say, ‘No!” they are part of the church now and need to be involved, engaged and invited to participate. Always having some place for children in worship whether they come to a service that particular Sunday or not shows that children are welcomed and wanted. In one congregation where I served I encouraged members of my congregation to become a child’s mentor in the local primary school across the road from the church, in a program called ‘KIDS HOPE’. Begun by World Vision, this program engages mentors from local churches to support a child on a weekly basis. It’s not an evangelical endeavour, it’s a pastoral opportunity for a congregation to be present in their local primary school offering support and making such a positive difference in children’s lives.
Jesus goes on to speak about receiving the kingdom of God with the simple trust and acceptance of a child, words that echo what he also said to Nicodemus about being born from above. Jesus is emphasising that our life in God is a gift we can’t earn or control. God is the generous giver who wants to draw out our love like the child who curled up on that lonely and critical woman’s lap and turned her life around.