All the Children of the World
Some years ago I was given a tiny gift at Christmas. (And we all know that “good things come in small packages,” right??) It was “bigger on the inside than the outside,” as C. S. Lewis once said, by several orders of magnitude.
Was it a ring? No. Was it a billfold? No. Was it the key to a new car? No. It was a book––of all things––a tiny book no more than four inches square, and scarcely a quarter-inch thick. Its title? Children’s Letters to God, compiled by veteran children’s writers Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall. Believe it or not, this slender little 1975 book made publishing history, selling an unprecedented 1.2 million copies in its day, and probably many more since. Not bad for a work by children.
Two sequels, one from 1991, also entitled Children’s Letters to God, and a second from 2008,
called More Children’s Letters to God have also very well. In fact More Children’s Letters to God has also sold a million copies. The work of children selling millions of copies. Wow. It does give one pause in this cynical age––“the age of irony”—does it not??? “Observe a four-year-old child going through her daily life,” writes literary professor Christy Wampole, “and you will not find the slightest bit of irony in her behavior. She has not, so to speak, taken on the “veil” of irony. She likes what she likes, and declares it without dissimulation. Nor is she particularly conscious of the scrutiny of others. She does not hide behind indirect language.”
In any case, here are some of the letters:
Dear God, in school they told us what You do.
But who looks after the world when You are on vacation? - Debbie
Dear God, I bet it is very hard for You to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can never quite do it. - Caitlin
Dear God, if You watch me in church Sunday,
I’ll show You my new shoes. - Emily
Dear God, instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t You just keep the ones You have? - Amy
Dear God, did You really mean “do unto others as they do unto you”? Because if You did, then I’m going to fix my brother. - Darla
Dear God, is it true my father won’t get into Heaven,
if he uses his bowling words in the house? - Anita
Dear God, did You mean for the giraffe to look like that
or was it an accident? - Norma
Dear God, I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church.
Is that okay? - Neil
Dear God, thank you for the baby brother,
but what I prayed for was a puppy. - Joyce
Dear God, why is Sunday school on Sunday?
I thought it was supposed to be a day of rest. -Tom
And here is still another letter God, from a child, though it’s not found in either anthology:
Dear God, I am bringing the world to you for repairs. The world is hurting, and I know you are the only one who can fix it. My Mom says you always keep your promises. So THANKS! in advance! for helping us! P.S.: And please tell the Baby Jesus I said, “Happy Birthday!
Extraordinary, aren’t they? So wise, so winsome, so real . . .
But give a child a few years, and everything changes. What happens then, pray tell? Well, we who were once children; we who were once so wise, and so winsome . . . We “grow up”––or so it is called. And it would seem for as much as we then gain in knowledge, in confidence, in strength, in power, in reason, we lose––or are stripped––of even more . . . And before we know what’s happening we become lost in veils of ironic dissimulation. One veil after another, after another. Layer upon layer upon layer . . .
In 1961, Jenny Joseph, an English poet, wrote a now-famous poem, which has been turned into posters; emblazoned on t-shirts; and sold a hundred thousand greeting cards. On the surface, it’s a poem written about getting, or being old. But what it actually says will shock you. Rather than being about growing old; it’s a poem about growing young.
One seldom sees the original, but this is how it reads.
It’s called “Warning.”
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves––
And satin sandals, and say “we’ve no money for butter.”
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops––and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings.
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens . . .
But maybe I ought to practice a little now . . .
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Growing young. A rather odd turn of phrase, if you think of it. No one grows young, obviously,
as much as they would wish to, or want to, or need to:––quite the opposite, in fact. Nevertheless, as if in tribute of this fact, Jesus makes a rather shocking statement. It was part of our reading today. “I tell you the truth,” says he, “unless you change––unless you change!!!––and become like little children, [as it were growing young]: you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
By which I believe he meant, that in order to encounter God, we who have ‘lost’ ourselves,
and become altogether jaded by having ‘grown up’; must undergo change in some pretty fundamental ways!! We must grow young, not old. We must dare to grow young enough, again, as it were––by the Spirit of God––and so free of dissimulation; free of pretention; free of arrogance and cruelty; like people who are the same on the inside as they are on the outside;
like people who say what they mean and mean what they say; like people who are “born again,” as Jesus puts it in John 3, both to a whole new understanding, and a whole new relationship with God . . .
No wonder that children are everywhere in the life and ministry of Jesus––which is unprecedented for a Jewish rabbi; many, if not most of whom would avoid children like the plague, thinking their proper place as teachers and guarantors of faith to be among the older and “wiser.”
In Mark 9, the disciples argue rather inanely about who would be “greatest” among them,
a typically adult preoccupation. How does Jesus respond? He takes a child in his arms and says:
“If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very least, and servant of all. Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes one of these little children welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”
Are the disciples listening? Apparently not. Only a chapter later, in Mark 10, the disciples actually try to forbid people from bringing children to Jesus.
Needless to say people still try to forbid the bringing of children to Jesus, thinking that the religious education of children is corruptly manipulative. In any case, when this happens,
Jesus is positively indignant!!! “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,
for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
“I praise you Father,” says Jesus in Matthew 11, “that you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”
Now don’t get me wrong. To be sure, children were viewed as God’s greatest gift, even the guarantee of the covenant. Every birth was regarded as a divine miracle. And it was children, and no others, who enabled the survival of families; and heritages; and destinies; on into the future. But no one ever thought to emulate them; or learn from them; or model their lives after them! What a ridiculous idea to most ancients!!
After all, children were powerless––absolutely powerless––and occupied the bottom rung of every ancient society––Hebrew or otherwise. And people were happy to keep them that way. Parents had absolute authority over children, who were educated strictly and punished severely.
Their humility was both constitutional––and inescapable.
But to Jesus, becoming like a child, as lowly as that was in worldly terms (“growing young,” as it were) is actually the very prerequisite for knowing God, and entering his kingdom.
Growing young requires things we are not accustomed to providing each other, let alone God.
Humility. Openness. Trust. And more.
To some people these are very scary words.
If you were to rate yourself from 1 to 10 vis-à-vis each of those qualities, how would you rate??
“Humility? “The quality or state of being humble, which is to say, of lowly rank or condition, of modest pretension,” from the Latin, humus, meaning “ground.”?
“You’re joking, right, God? Humility? Come on. If you don’t stick up for yourself, or have overwhelming pride in “who you are” and “what you are”––no one else will. Isn’t this the era of identity politics? Of pride, and precedence––inverse precedence, if necessary? And now you’re asking me to humble myself; to be willing to admit that I need you, to admit that yes––dare I say it––I’m actually wrong once in a while?? Hmm….I don’t know about this, God.”
“Openness?? From “open,” “not closed or blocked up, allowing entrance or passage or access,
having gate or door or lid or part of boundary withdrawn, unenclosed, with ends not joined, unconfined, unobstructed, uncovered, bare, exposed, undisguised, public, manifest, not exclusive or limited, eagerly attentive, admitting all persons, not only to ‘members,’ accessible….”??
“Again, you have to be joking, Lord. Are you out of your mind??? You ask for the impossible.
Why should I be open to you, much less other people? I could get hurt, deeply hurt, and taken advantage of . . . ”
“Trust???” I.e. “firm belief in the reliability, honesty, justice, or strength of a person or thing; confident expectation…..” ?
“No comment, Lord.”
Here is another poem. It is the work of a new grandmother, Angelina Fast-Vlaar. It’s entitled “A little child.”
She snuggles into my arms
finding the perfect fit.
Her small hand reaches to touch my face;
contented crooning escapes her lips.
Her big brown eyes slowly close
and her tiny body relaxes
totally trusting its weight to my care.
I stand in the soft glow
of one candle, a Christmas candle,
and contemplate the depth of my love
for this beautiful granddaughter of mine
––a gift from you, O Lord.
If I, in my finite, sinful humanness
can love this little child,
can I not believe how much
my heavenly Father loves me,
and can I not completely relax
in His loving everlasting arms,
entrusting my total being to Him
and become myself, a little child?
Let me tell you about another three-year-old. Sophia Cavalletti writes about a three-year old
who grew up without religious influence and had never heard the name of God spoken.
The little one asked her father, “Where does the world come from?” He responds with the answer of a jaded and unreflective materialist; that the world came into being by “accident”; by “chance”––but suddenly, he makes bold to say to the child that, “there are those, however, who say that all this comes from a very powerful being:––and they call that being, ‘God.’”
On the instant his daughter joyously exclaims, “I knew what you told me wasn’t true; it is God, it is God!!!!”
Guess what! It is God. It’s God! He’s calling to you this morning. He’s saying––“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, as a child would, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Will you hear his voice? Will you become like a child? Will you live like a child before him?
Will snowflakes make you dance? Will you see roses growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk?
Will the sunshine make you smile, perhaps for the first time in years? Will you grow young again?
Amen. Amen. Let it so be. Now as never before, under the shadow of Covid. Under the shadow of a swiftly-turning, swiftly fraying world. Come to God like a child. Ask him to help you, and abide with you, as never before.