The Most Honest People In The World, And Why We Need Them
When I was preparing to become a pastor, I was offered an internship at a local church. The pastor in charge asked me what area of ministry interested me most. I told him I would do pretty much anything – teaching, adult discipleship, student ministry, missional living, worship and liturgy, or polishing the pastor’s shoes and being his errand-boy – whatever the church needed me to do would be fine. There was just one group that I told the pastor I wasn’t interested in working with – little children.
Looking back, part of me thinks that the pastor should have, on the basis of my response, rescind the offer to give me an internship. Instead, he did me a favor.
Two days later, the pastor met with me to go over the terms of my internship. The first words out of his mouth were, “Scott, we have decided to assign you to the children’s ministry.”
I left the meeting feeling disrespected and not listened to. And yet, over the next couple of years serving in this internship, I realized that it was I, not the pastor, who had been disrespectful and had not been listening.
Now they were bringing even infants to [Jesus] that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:15-16)
Do you recognize that an inability to enjoy children is not representative of a defect in the children, but of a defect in us? I hope that you do. And if not, I hope that you will.
Because children, just like the poor, offer us the best shot at understanding what it means to live inside God’s kingdom.
Trust Expressed Through Bold Honesty
Children are going to be who they are. With zero nuance and zero subtlety, they are going to be the same exact person – the authentic version of themselves – in every situation. They will be the same in private as they are in public, the same at home as they are at church or at a restaurant, the same at bedtime as they are at breakfast. We are always going to know what children are feeling and thinking. We are always going to know where they stand. Children are always going to tell it true. Maybe this is why children scare us so much…because truth calls us to love and to serve.
One time Patti and I were both flattened by the flu. It was one of those illnesses that made it very difficult to get out of bed to do anything, and both of us had it…for an entire week. On day three, one of our daughters entered our bedroom, woke Patti up, and boldly declared that her parents having the flu was unfair and it was getting really hard for her. Then, she proceeded to invite Patti – her completely fatigued and flattened-out, flu-sacked mother – to rub her feet.
This – the bold and unfiltered honesty, the utter lack of situational awareness – it is both irritating and refreshing, yes?
By being the same in every environment, children invite us, too, to remove our masks and live authentically. Children, like no one else, invite us to cry out and ask for comfort. They remind us that we, just like them, are safe to be ourselves instead of putting on masks and trying to become a fake imitation of somebody else. We are safe because, just like them, we live every moment of our lives in the presence of and beneath the gaze of a Parent whose love, approval and favor can be assumed at all times. This Parent never grows weary, and he never slumbers or sleeps. Our Father in heaven – who loves us as we are, loves us where we are, and also, like the best parents, refuses to allow us to stay as there – this Father is there with the ever-faithful and healing reminder that we are at all times HIS beloved.
Though my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in…Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (Psalm 27:10; Isaiah 49:15-16)
The older we get, the more cynical we become. The more cynical we become, the less we believe that we are loved in this way, that we have this kind of access to the Father’s care and reassurance, that we can cry out any time and for any need or desire to be met. Even when we are wrong-headed and wrong-hearted, God hears and sees the true need beneath our awkward cries – the need to be seen, the need to be loved and made much of, the need to be reassured that we are never alone, the need to be remembered.
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?…But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:1, 5-6)
Calling Out The Best In Us
Children also provide us with a necessary gut check. In simply being who they are, they challenge the distorted value systems that neuter our own progress in the virtues that matter most – the virtues associated with love. The costs and inconveniences associated with loving messy children are not costs and inconveniences. Rather, they are God-given reminders of life as it’s meant to be.
Don’t hinder the little children. Let them come to me.
Jesus’ invitation to escort children into his embrace is also an invitation – no, it’s a command – to receive the children unto ours as well.
Our friends Mike and Allie (names changed for their daughters’ sake) did something amazing just a few years ago when their opportunity to adopt a little girl from Uganda was put at risk. After they had met the little girl and the adoption process was underway, Mike and Allie discovered that, based on Ugandan law, their unique situation would require them to live in Uganda for two years before the adoption could be completed. This would mean relocating with their three children to the other side of the world. It would also mean turning down Mike’s dream job that had just been offered to him – a job serving as headmaster to one of Nashville’s thriving K-12 schools.
As Mike and Allie wrestled with the potential implications, they began to ask, “What if one of our biological children were stuck in Uganda, and the only way to get the child back was to move to Uganda for two years?” They concluded that they would do whatever it took. They would move to Uganda for two years or twenty if necessary, if that was what it took to bring their child back home. So Mike and Allie decided that if the Ugandan courts wouldn’t grant them an exception (which then ended up doing after all, but that’s beside the point)…they would pack up, leave home and family and friends and career behind, and move to Uganda for the little girl who, just like the other three, in their minds was already theirs.
Exposing The Need In Us
Children, by virtue of their vulnerability, weakness and need…draw out the self-sacrificing, to-the-ends-of-the-earth-if-necessary love that honors the Father’s image in us. But there’s much more to it than this. It is not only the children who need us to rescue them; we also need the children to rescue us. It is not only the children who need us to raise them; we also need the children to raise us.
Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. (Luke 18:17)
Speaking of children with special needs, did you know that children with Down Syndrome have been identified as the happiest people group in the world? According to The American Journal of Medical Genetics, 99% of those living with Down Syndrome say that they are happy with their lives. 97% say that they like who they are. And 99% agree with the statement, “I love my family.”
One of the greatest privileges I have is being pastor to a church that is filled with children and adults who have special needs. This is a population to which our church – both programmatically and relationally – has chosen to invest resources and give special attention. I firmly believe that the greatest beneficiaries of this investment are not the people among us who have special needs, but those of us who get to live a slice of our lives in their company.
I think of Katie who has Down Syndrome. She has the biggest smile and gives the longest and strongest hugs. I think of how she demands a hug from me, her pastor, almost every Sunday. I think of how she lights up when I tell her she is beautiful, and how she reminds me that I need to tell her she is beautiful on those rare occasions when I forget. I think of how she hands me pictures that she has drawn – pictures that represent her profoundly simple and simply profound interpretations of my sermons.
I think of William – who also has Down Syndrome and is autistic. William’s parents are stretched beyond their limits and are driven nuts by him on a regular basis. And yet, they never stop telling us how rich their lives are because of him. If not for William, they would know Jesus less. If not for William, we, too, would know Jesus less. Hand a box of Cheez-Its to William and, if you look away for even a minute, he will eat the whole box. He runs into busy streets and breaks the toys and makes a mess of things. And he laughs at my jokes and gives me high fives and smiles ear to ear when our eyes make contact. He, like Katie, insists on giving me hugs. William, who is unable to articulate his thoughts in words, hands out bulletins at church and passes the offering plate and dances happy to hymns and worship songs. And he yells out at the most inappropriate moments. And as he does all of these things – as he lives honest and true – he brings me back to the truth. He brings me back to grace. He shows me the King and the kingdom that I would not be able to see without the likes of him.
We all need little children just like Jesus’ disciples did. We all need Katie and William. Because the kingdom belongs to little children…and to messy masterpieces.
And we all have special needs.