1 Kings 1:32-37
I spent this week working in the primary department (ages 7 to 9) at camp meeting. I knew only three kids–Violet and Lars from Green Lake Church and Austin, a member of North Hill Adventist Fellowship, the congregation I pastored from 1998 through 2012.
Then there were the kids I was getting reacquainted with: Austin, and his cousins, Torie and Jack.
When they divided the kids into smaller groups for an activity I worked on learning the names of the kids in my group. When I came around to Austin, instead of asking his name, I said his name. He glared at me and demanded, “How do you know my name?”
I explained I had known his parents before he existed, even before they were married. I could have added a couple of other details from my memory that would not have been appreciated by a nine year boy! I remembered his mother having to chase him down because of his wildness on stage during children’s story. I also refrained from saying out loud what I saw now: he was a cool kid. Confident and bold. Lithe, agile, sharp, active, alive!
Then I came to a girl who seemed vaguely familiar, but just barely. When I asked her name, she looked at me with a bit of annoyance or perhaps indignance. Like how could I NOT know her name?
The wounded indignance in her eyes woke up my memory. Torie, how could I forget you? She was Austin’s cousin. I had known her parents before she was born, before they were married, before they were even a couple. How could I not remember her? Beside Torie was her little brother Jack. The truth was, since Torie and her brother were placid babies and never made any commotion they had not commanded my attention as infants when I was their pastor. They were just everyday, average kids.
But that was before I spent a week watching them. Listening to them demonstrate superlative memory skills. Watching them interact with other kids. Torie had grown into a remarkable person. She looked out for others around her, exhibiting a calm responsible, mother hen nature. Watching her, I saw an angel hiding stunning intelligence behind a soft, gentle countenance.
And brother Jack–a striking physical contrast to Austin visually. Austin was lithe and dark. Jack was a red head. A sturdy chunk. I was utterly enchanted with his sweetness and goodness and intelligence. Both Torie and Jack fascinated me with their combination of a charming sweetness wrapped around a core of strength and confidence. Even this morning when I call them to mind I’m fascinated by their combination of stillness and strength. Their sweetness and boldness. How can a person hold those things together so naturally and easily.
As the week progressed I learned a lot of names. Our usual attendance was about fifty, with a few new kids every day and other kids leaving with their parents or grandparents. After a couple of days I had learned the names of 80 percent of the kids which was helpful when they were misbehaving. 🙂
Also, as the week progressed. I found myself increasingly enthralled with these kids.
At first they were a sea of faces, cute in the way that all children and puppies and ducklings are. As days passed, the sea of faces became individual faces, distinct persons, I was enchanted, charmed, mesmerized by this collection of unspeakably beautiful people.
Noah — a small guy, hair white-blond, big eyes, a smile that was friendly and impish. The longer the week went, the more radiant and magical his smile seemed.
Lillian–also small. Dark skin, dark curls. Dark eyes that gleamed like fire. When there was noise in her neighborhood, she was always part of it. She was busy. And captivating. When I was up front I found my eyes returning to her neighborhood–back row on the right–not just because she was often making a commotion, but because of her beauty. Our programs were far too slow for her. It was my job to keep her quiet and every message I picked up from her body said quiet was not something she did very well. I was both delighted she was part of our department and sorry she had to endure our endless exhortations to be quiet, pay attention, eyes to the front. Her ebullience was obviously irrepressible.
Then there was Aela, Allen, Grayson, Violet, Daniel, Naomi, Topaz, Levi, Elijah, Tomer, Lilly, Jasper Andrew, Kylie, Natasha, Josie, Evelyn, Alex, Kevin, Caleb and another forty kids.
Every day, individuals became more vivid. More beautiful. More precious. More magnificent.
I’m sure it was kids like this that Jesus had in mind when he said, “Allow the children to come. Do not hinder them. Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to this kind of people.”
Once the disciples asked Jesus how to measure greatness in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus replied by calling a child over. “Be like this kid,” he said. There he added this, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
I like to imagine Jesus looking at this kid, maybe taking the kids head in his hands and staring at his face, contemplating the beauty and life and curiosity and busyness and intelligence and goodness shining in that kid’s face. I imagine Jesus being charmed beyond words by this vision. Then he says, see here, in this face is the glory of God. In this body is the kingdom of God. Be like this. Protect this magnificent incarnation of the kingdom.
The feeding of the 5000. Children were there. The Bible does not count them. Maybe because they were too wiggly. But the Bible notices them. I’m not aware of any other reference to children at gatherings of philosophers or ancient religious teachers. Children were there. The kingdom of heaven had ALWAYS included children.
The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these. To these people. These real people. These beautiful people. That’s what Jesus saw. That’s the heavenly vision.
Vision is not information. It is not a scientific counting. It is artistry. It is framing.
It is true that some children at camp meeting were not so immediately beautiful..
Kids with learning disabilities,
Kids with developmental problems.
Kids with faces already marked with fear or anger.
They were there. They needed my afternoon and sympathy and, yes, guidance. For some of them I had to work to see their beauty. And even my “beautiful kids” could also be seen as rowdy problems instead of as beautiful citizens of the kingdom of heaven, if that was the way my eyes were focused.
But I saw the beauty, and I bear witness. I saw the Kingdom of Heaven.
Our Old Testament passage makes a lovely point about children.
King David had a number of sons. He was old and failing in health and in function. His decline inspired a couple of different efforts by sons with the connivance of royal advisers to take over the throne. Finally, David agrees to formally yield the throne to his designated successor.
After David has announced this decision, his most trusted confidant comes in to see him and greets David with these words, “May his throne be greater than yours!”
The whole premise of monarchy is the myth that the monarch is the best–the wisest, smartest, fittest, strongest. Everyone has to carefully protect the myth of the throne. . . . until it is time for his heir to take the throne. In that instant, the rules reverse. It is the next king, the king’s heir who is the wisest, smartest, fittest, strongest–at least in hope. Only when contemplating the glorious future of the king’s heir is it permissible to speak of someone greater than the king. And then it is not only permissible, it is close to obligatory. It is sweet music to the king’s ears.
So we and even Jesus himself dream of children who will do greater things than we have done. As we watch their enchanting beauty, their dazzling intellect, their sweet spirits, we take hope. We see already hints of the kingdom to come and pray that even now it is taking root among us. As we contemplate the beauty of these children we take fresh resolve to do all we can to help these children thrive and triumph.
This has pointed application in the life of the church today. Some imagine that the best of Christianity is in the past–back at Pentecost or in the days of the apostles. People speak wistfully of “apostolic Christianity.” But the best Christianity was not in the days of Jesus or in the days of the apostles. If it were, would not God have called his work finished and ended the flow of miserable human history?
Some Adventists imagine that the best of Adventism was back in the days of the pioneers. They idolize a mythic historic Adventism. But if the best days of our faith are in the past, we might as well close church and be done with it. And if we imagine that our religion is better than what God will accomplish in and through our children (or “their” children –whoever “they” is), we ought to simply sit in lament and acknowledge that we have been miserable failures. We have failed to provide the sanctuary needed by our children so they could cultivate the graces and virtues God intended.
The future belongs to our children whether we like it or not. We cannot determine the future. We cannot determine what values and beliefs, what doctrines and policies, will endure. That is in the hands of our children and grandchildren. Let us join Jesus in trusting the children. Let’s practice looking at children and seeing the Kingdom of Heaven already present among us.