A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lessons in belief from our children

I find it striking how much a child's worldview differs from an adult's. In the book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes, "to believe simply means to give one's heart to." She observes that belief is a scary movement for people.

Belief may be scary for adults, but it's not the least intimidating for children. You ask my daughter what she's going to be when she grows up and she embraces the conversation with the utmost fervor and passion. She plans to build her own zoo and then will manage the zoo as a veterinarian. No doubts here. She doesn't stop to wonder if this is going to work out or not. No Plan B. She's given her heart to her dream of owning and running a zoo and so she believes this will all fall into place at the appropriate time.

Several years ago I was doing a little Christmas shopping and stopped in at TSC (Tractor Supply Company), to see what they had. At the time, I wasn't aware they had a toy section, but the kids quickly helped me discover it. Immediately, Becca found a large, soft, purple and pink stuffed horse and within minutes, they had bonded. She began calling it "her horse" and didn't really understand why it wasn't leaving the store with her. She bid it a tearful goodbye and throughout the day we kept hearing about how much she was missing her horse. By the next day, the matter was settled as she turned the whole affair over to Santa Claus, quite confident of the happy reunion in store come Christmas Day. And her pink friend did end up under our tree that year. I wasn't ready for that quality of belief to falter.

Children also apply this belief to doing what is right. They believe if we each just do what we should, the world will be okay. People won't be hungry. All children will have toys. And they're right, that's the thing. We've taught our children to be vigilant about picking up litter along the road. They've now surpassed my husband and I in their ambitions. Jonathan will find a piece of ooey, gooey trash, pick it up, bring it to me cheerfully and say, "We're picking up God's world!".... and then expect me to carry it the distance. Jonathan truly believes if we all just take the time to pick up garbage in our path then we can get this job done, the world over. On the other hand, I think about how much there is to pick up. I imagine someone tossing more litter our their car window as soon as we're back at home. I am hindered by a sense of futility. Then I think about Isaiah and all the beautiful reversals he speaks of. A shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse - life from death. Wolves living with lambs, cows and bears grazing together.....a little child leading them. And I understand that Jonathan has this one right, not me.

Children live hope. We find hope in children because they hold the promise of the future. But just as important, they teach us how to live our hope. Do you know why they can live hope? Because they don't even know they're doing it. As soon as we become aware that hope is tenuous, fragile - that it doesn't always bear visible fruit, it's very hard for us to live it anymore. I have to wonder if this is the real reason adolescence is such an upheaval for kids and adults alike. This is the time in life when we are faced with "reality" as adults understand it. It is the time in life when we begin to step away from the hope that has been our reality to that point.

What is most wrenching of all is when children, little children, have that hope forcibly stripped from them in the form of abuse, neglect, poverty, prejudice, war. This last week I heard an NPR report about child slaves in West Africa who start hard labor in the cotton fields when they're as young as 5 years old. We've all heard too many stories of this kind. I grieve when I think of the many children who no longer have the ability to believe in all that is right and good. Humanity butchers the best part of who we are when we harm our children, in part because children bring gifts to our collective table that simply are not accessible to adults.

Adults are most often unable to understand the hope that a child lives. We lose is somehow. I read Isaiah's peaceable kingdom verses differently than my children do. I wonder if it's an allegory. How exactly will God accomplish this? Is this Biblical evidence that there will be animals in heaven? Will God change the physical make-up of carnivores?

When I read these verses to my kids and asked for their reaction, Rebecca said, "That's good." Jonathan agreed. That was it. They believe God can do anything. No big deal then believing that someday God might make the wolf and the lamb buddies.

I take some measure of comfort from John the Baptist's inability to believe with innocence. John didn't have a child's capacity for hope either. He imagined the Messiah in the same old, predictable, violent box as so many of his contemporaries, past and present. When John sees Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, this is what he says, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?.....Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

And no sooner has he finished this violent distribe, then Jesus, dressed in ordinary clothes, no winnowing fork in sight, comes up behind John, taps him on the shoulder and says, "Hi cousin. Are you ready to baptize me?" I admit, I'm taking a little poetic license here, but that does seem to be the essence of the narrative. John is aghast. This is beyond his imagination. This is completely upside-down. And when they are finished, no fire rains down from heaven, but the Spirit of God does descend on Jesus like a dove and a voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Maybe this is why Jesus came to us as a child. Only a child can fully embrace God's upside-down way of doing things. "And a little child shall lead them..."

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