I frequently teach in elementary music classrooms. This experience differs from being in a regular classroom because I get 30 minutes alone with many grades instead of spending an entire day with 5th graders or High School math students.
One of my favorite songs to teach Kindergarteners is “Eight Clay pigeons.” The kids line up single file on one side of the room and we sing together:
Eight Clay pigeons
Eight Clay pigeons
Eight Clay pigeons, sittin’ on a wall.
When we sing the last line, I announce with a surprised voice: “There goes another one, flying away!” and the first child flaps her arms and flies to the other side of the room. Then each takes their turn, “Seven clay pigeons… ” “Six clay pigeons…” etc. until everyone has had a chance to soar from one side of the room to the other.
I love watching their innocent play. They swoop, and swirl from one side to the other, devoid of self-consciousness. They proclaim with pride that there are only seven clay pigeons left when one of the original eight flies away.
I’d love to hold on to the child-ness of children. When I look at pictures of my young sons and daughters, I miss those little toddlers. But when I sit across the living room with them today as adults, I get to talk with them as equals, and revel in the young men and women they’ve become. If they stayed forever five, I wouldn’t get that experience.
One stage children go through as they grow is comparing themselves to each other. They begin placing each other in a pecking order of popularity and abilities. Some children are chosen first for the playground teams, while others are left to watch from the sidelines.
Jesus’ followers had the same problem. They believed Jesus was going to overthrow their Roman occupiers and take the throne of a new Israelite kingdom. As members of his inner circle, they assumed he would appoint them to high ranking positions in the court of his new kingdom. So they quarreled amongst themselves over who would get the highest positions in his new kingdom.
One day, after a long journey, Jesus and his disciples arrived at a house in Capernaum. As they were traveling Jesus overheard them talking about these things. Once they settled in he asked: “What were you talking about on the road?” They kept quiet, because they didn’t want to admit they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.
Jesus called over a child from the home and stood him in the middle of the room and said to them:
“…unless you change and become like little children, you won’t even get into the kingdom of heaven. People who humble themselves like this child are the greatest in my kingdom.”
This sounded just as absurd to the disciples as it does to us. A government doesn’t just run itself. There is work to be done if you are going to rule people. It would be a place of honor, and responsibility to be on Jesus’ left or right making important decisions. They had their resumes prepared. Letters of recommendation. They had the qualifications.
Jesus took the wind out of their sails when he told them their posturing was useless. Childlikeness was the qualification he was looking for. The real action, he told them, was with Kindergartners flapping their arms across the room.
This makes no sense. Worldly affairs are not the place for children. They are kept safely on the sidelines. They can handle play money, but they don’t get to run our banks. They get toy guns to shoot pretend bears, but civilized people don’t give them assault rifles to kill their enemies. Children aren’t in-the-game. It’s the grown-ups’ job to strategize, scheme and fight.
Rest assured, Jesus isn’t handing the reins of this world over to the elementary school. He knew that children aren’t a perpetual class of human beings. The stork doesn’t bring a population of 5 year olds to this earth who stay eternally 5 year olds. Children grow, and mature until they become adults. They become you and me.
We are grown-up versions of the children we once were. My father-in-law has a sign in his living room that reads “Inside of every old person is a young person wondering what the hell happened.” Jesus’ message to his disciples was “When you grow up, you need to be like the child you once were. You have to remember that child inside you.”
Notice that Jesus did not give his followers instructions about how to be child-like. Children don’t have a job description. You don’t teach a child how to be a child. Imagine Jesus giving them this list.
- Eat graham crackers at 11am.
- Share your toys
- Don’t take other kids’ toys.
- Color inside the lines.
Being like a child simply means paying attention to children and then imitating them.
One way we to be child-like is to play. The last time my grandchildren visited I took them to McDonald’s to play on the plastic playground. As I watched them careen down the slides, I imagined adults would have fun on a grown-up version. McDonalds once constructed an adult play-land in Syndey Australia. But they only used it for a commercial, and only the extras were allowed to play in it. How unfortunate that grown-ups were never allowed to play on something constructed as a symbol of their child-likeness.
Being told to be more like a child is unsettling. Some childhood memories are unpleasant. Imitating children means opening ourselves up to the same vulnerabilities we had as children. Sometimes those vulnerabilities come from religious people. Parents would bring their children to Jesus so he could bless them. Jesus’ disciples once rebuked them for doing this. When he found out, he got angry and told them, “Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands on them and blessed them.
Jesus is on the side of children. And if he is on the side of children, he is also on the side of child-like people. What can you do today to be more like a child? What risks might you be taking? How can knowing Jesus is on your side give you the courage to take those risks? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.