Jesus says important words here, and not just about how much he loves and values children. But if we are not careful, we will miss the full impact of his message in a rush to make a sentimental and sappy greeting card moment out of it.
You've probably heard, like I have, that Jesus' words mean we should come with the kind of unquestioning and simple faith that children have. Now, my only prolonged exposure to childhood was my own, so those of you who know more than me can snicker quietly if you like. But my experience with kids is that they are anything but unquestioning. Preschoolers say "why?" almost as much as they say "mine!" As they age, their sentence length may expand, but they still question many more things than we do as adults. So I don't think that works.
But here's something that occurred to me when I was trying to figure out what kind of faith children had that Jesus might be talking about. Think if some times when children show their trust.
One of the earliest is when they learn to walk. We've all forgotten how utterly mind-blowing that little skill can be. Walking is actually a controlled fall repeated over and over again. We tip our center of gravity forward so that it moves forward and we move with it. But the ultimate end of tipping our center of gravity forward is falling on our faces. Unless, of course, we catch ourselves. Which we do, by putting our leg out in front. But we then use that leg as a lever to keep moving forward in yet another fall, until we catch ourselves with the other leg, and so on and so on. It works for the Winter Warlock, it works for us.
Even though we're short when we learn this, we still don't like falling, so we're apprehensive about it. So mom or dad or grandma or grandpa has to hold out their hands, saying, "Come on, come to mama" to encourage us, and we see their outstretched arms and smiling faces as a reassurance they will catch us if we do overbalance and start to fall. We trust them and their presence in front of us.
The same thing happens when we learn to jump off the side of the pool into their arms. The pool is of course the size of every ocean combined and waiting to slurp up little kids as soon as they get in and get water in their noses. But again, someone is there assuring us we will be caught and safe when we jump in.
I know many folks had rotten experiences with their parents and what I'm describing didn't happen for them, but I think we can recognize the ideal that I'm describing. Little children take their steps or make their leaps because there is a presence they can see and hear that they trust.
But then comes another kind of trust. I learned to ride my bike without training wheels in the back yard. It was softer than the driveway. And this was about 1971 or thereabouts, so helmet schmelmet. My dad ran along behind me, holding the bike upright and telling me I could do it, and then at one point turned around and he wasn't there and I was indeed riding my bike without wheels or any other help. I unbalanced because I turned around and immediately I crashed, but I had done it just as he said. He didn't explain anything about the laws of momentum and physics that made it possible, but he gave me his promise that I could do it. Even though he wasn't present like he was when I walked or when I was on the side of the pool, I still had his promise.
Now later on we don't trust our parents so much, but that's just because they get so dumb about when we turn 15 and they don't smarten back up until we're about 25 or so. As little children, we trust their presence and their promise.
Of course we can trust God when we feel his presence. At a recent continuing education event, I was in worship with 2,000 people and a 150-voice choir and a full orchestra, and when we sang the hymn, you can be darn sure I felt the presence of God.
But in tragedy or in sorrow, we might not feel that presence. We may feel depression, or despair, or anger or any on of a thousand other things, but we don't feel God. It's then we have to trust his promise that he has not abandoned us and is always with us. He doesn't explain what happened or elaborate on all the whys, but he promises he is still with us.
That's not easy. But the more I live a life of faith, the more I come to realize I not only believe that promise, I've come to depend on it. No one, Christians least of all, can look at this world and say it's what it should be, and because there are so many places where it seems God is absent, I lean back more and more on that promise that he made to us in the bread and the cup -- that he is always with us, even to death and what comes after.