A peculiar convergence of thoughts and events:
First the thoughts. This past Sunday my sermon included my thoughts about the Christian life and children, inspired partly by the Gospel lesson and partly by the fact that we had two little ones being baptized. I noted then that there is no instance in the Gospels where Jesus says to a child, “Come, follow me.” Children aren’t intended to be disciples in the full sense of the word, which means laying one’s life down for Jesus and his kingdom. Rather, one of the marks of disciples is that they are to serve children (see Mark 9). Learn how to be a disciple, Jesus seems to be saying, by serving children, who
a) have no status or power in this world with which to pay you back for your service; and
b) are so caught up in themselves that real reciprocity in a relationship is not possible (nor advisable: when parents turn children into their confidantes they do them great harm.)
Being a disciple involves giving yourself away. You can’t give yourself away until you first have a firm hold on yourself. Otherwise, there is nothing to give away. The appropriate task of childhood is to create a self — a sense of identity. Who am I?
When Jesus said a disciple must serve children, the disciples had been engaged in an argument over “who is the greatest”; as such they were being childish when it was time now for them to get past that. The “who is the greatest” argument is an unavoidable part of growing up. We create a sense of self by discovering our unique gifts (which inevitably involve comparing ourselves to other people) and the ways we uniquely belong.
We slowly build a sense of self by finding ways in which our gifts set us apart. “I am the best soccer goalie on my team.” Or, “I am the one who feeds the dogs; without me, they’d be lost. The dogs, and the family, count on me to do this.” Childhood is a time for play, and lots of it, and in that play, our distinctive imagination develops. Children are inherently, unavoidably self-centered, and though we adults get frustrated by this fact, it is simply the way life processes. You can’t develop a self without being self-centered.
If we succeed at creating a sense of self, gradually we become aware that simply having a self is not enough. To live merely for this self is to fail to find the larger meaning of one’s life. This is where discipleship comes in: Losing my life in order to find my life — a much larger life, where I no longer am the center of everything. At that point, Jesus arrives and says, “Come, follow me.”
What, then, should we attempt to do for these children we baptize and raise up in the Church? It seems to me there are three things.
The first is to simply love them, and by this I mean give them as best we can the kind of unconditional love that provides them with a deep sense of belonging. “I love you, Jesus loves you; rest in that certainty. You belong here.”
The second is to lay the ground work for the life that will emerge later. Teach them the Bible stories so Jesus and other Bible characters can live inside their imagination and shape their vision. Plant the seeds that will later bring forth the harvest of a deeper spirituality. Teach them the golden rule, the ten commandments — basic rules of respecting all other human beings. Give them opportunties to experience service — like the boy who offered Jesus his lunch of few fish and and bit of bread with which Jesus fed the 5000 — without forcing them prematurely into the life of a servant.
And finally, let them be a part of a community of faith where there are readily available living examples of a mature faith being lived out.
When children are pressured early on to “give their life to Jesus”, they run the risk of getting stuck in the “who is the greatest” argument, with the answer they keep coming up with is “look at me, I’m the best little Christian; so much better than the others, praise me for being so good”, which is altogether different from one day laying down one’s life for Jesus and his kingdom.
Now the curious convergence I referred toÂ at the beginning of this post is that in the week following my sermon I have been hearing over and over about a new documentary just released that has been creating quite a storm entitled “Jesus Camp.” It describes a camp in North Dakota where children children 6 to 10 are pushed hard to be Christians. (If you type “Jesus Camp” into your search engine, you’ll probably be able to see a clip from the film.)
At our Wednesday healing prayer meeting, one of our members was so disturbed by what she had seen on “Good Morning, America” about this film that she was moved to pray for the children she saw in the film clips. I share her reaction. There is this point of view depicted in “Jesus Camp” that portrays Christians as being engaged in a war with Muslims and others, whom they refer to as “enemies”, emphasizing the need to draw recruits early on for this war (pointing out that this is what some radical Muslims groups are doing so well.)
Whatever happened to loving the enemy? Whatever happened to the parable of the Good Samaritan?
Let children be children.