And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-3, RSV)
When I was young, I remember many times feeling very much like an old man. I was a sensitive, scared, and somber little boy, growing up without a father for most of my early life. Because I was intelligent and creative, I often retreated within myself to a place of inner protection, where I could fashion ideas about faith and friendship that rewrote who I was, where I was going, and how I would get there.
As I grew up past the awkward teenage years, moving out on my own, making mistakes and learning I didn’t have to break because of them, something began to change. The anger of my youth began to give way to humor and a solemn appreciation for the transforming power of love. My rigid childhood faith with its rules that kept my world in order gave way to the messiness of mysticism and the freedom of poetry and passionate praise. In my adult encounters with the Almighty, I began to experience a resurgence of the childhood I never knew. It put me in touch with the deepest parts of who I was, opening the door to the healing I found in Christ.
The Child Forgotten, The Child Remembered
As people age there is often a deep sense of regret about the time that has gone by. We lament over the youth that was wasted or stolen from us, or miss the better days when life wasn’t so complicated. We weep over our failing frames, regret the missed opportunities in love or life, and faint with fear as we come face to face with the naked truth of our fallen world. But as a believer, one who now sees how the Lord has wired me for emptiness and empathy, I am discovering a beauty so deep and a joy so unending that I am left without words. In my surrender to the will of the Ageless One I hear a wondrous message of renewal and peace from the holy Word speaking directly into my heart:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31, RSV)
To the weak and the wounded, the lonely and the lost, there is the God who lends his eternal strength to his people like a whisper of his gentle love. As a tender Father, he allows his children to crawl, then walk, and finally run into the kingdom. He takes our sins and our sorrows, our failures and our falls, then lifts us up and teaches us to dance, to leap, and to fly. And it all comes when we at last surrender to his perfect will. In the moments when experience has opened our eyes, when we face our greatest losses and our deepest fears, we see heaven open before us, renewing the vigor of our youth and setting our feet on a lofty place of rest.
But Seek First His Kingdom
In my youth I was not always a kingdom seeker. Though I knew to whom I belonged, I was not yet fully able to grasp that the God who loved and accepted me as no earthly father ever could was the same God who lovingly allowed struggle and tragedy into my life as a holy discipline to fashion me into the shape of a saint. As I matured, God began to set me on the right track. I started seeking his kingdom and living out his call through works of mercy and love. I was indeed changing – my black and white theology being painted with the colors of the human condition. At that time, I was working with teens, learning to listen and love as I took the pain of my younger days and applied its lessons to their lives.
And then, I met the love of my life, the one to banish the doubts about what it meant to belong. We were married and moved away to start a new life. We faced those first years together with bravery and joy as we came to understand what love was all about. But still, I was not fully seeking the kingdom. I was praying and serving and doing my best to please God; yet, I was not fully engaged in the work of surrender to the kingdom’s true call. I remained a restless wanderer, still fearfully tied to the old man who had ruled my world since my youth. Slowly God began to do his work, and the old man began to transform into the child I longed to become.
Be Still and Know that I Am God
The world rages around us and we tremble as those mountains we have moved to get where we are crumble before our feet. We face tragedy along with triumph, death along with life, sorrow along with joy. And yet, still we keep building castles out of sand that melt away as the tide of time and the wind of God’s will level them to the ground. We will give our time, talent, and treasure to the cause of Christ, stay the moral course, and become dutiful and obedient sons and daughters – so long as we can keep from offering ourselves on the altar of sacrifice where we fear the essence of who we are will be burned away.
Oh, that we would heed the words of the psalmist:
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10, RSV)
If only we would remove ourselves from the thrones of our lives and learn that true humility means standing before the infinite, eternal, all-powerful God of the universe and not melting away. If only we would accept that the love that led the Son of God to die on that cross holds us in a place so precious that all our fears and misperceptions and sorrows vanish like smoke before the fires of mercy and grace. That is the place where age gives way to agelessness.
Unless we become as Children…
Why do we resist the call to become as children? Perhaps it’s because we confuse being childish with being childlike. We have been told all our lives to “grow up” and we have worked so hard to get to the point where we become masters of our worlds. When we arrive at this position of power and control, we have no desire to give it up for the sake of some sort of “holy playdate” with the divine. And yet, deep down within our empty hearts, there is a longing to be filled with the joy that only an innocent child can know.
It is possible to be a grownup who still remembers what it’s like to be a child. In truth, resisting the will of God for our illusion of control is more childish than we know. We are capable of being sober and sensible people, while giving up our power in favor of the freedom that comes when we let go and let God. Accepting the kingdom as a child means facing our responsibilities with resolve. It means transforming our arrogance into determination and our fear into faith, all because we allow the Almighty to work his wonderful will in our lives as we surrender our heavy burdens, take up the easy yoke, and walk the narrow way together.
Casting our Cares, Handing Over Our Hearts
My life has been far from easy. There have been many struggles along the way. My days are often filled with tasks and trials that sometimes overwhelm me. I seek to love my wife in the same way Christ loves his Church. I hold on tightly to our children even as I open my hand to let them go. I pour out words onto the page and hope someone will find some sense of meaning as they read them. And I continue to become the man I have been called to be, one stumbling step at a time.
But I have noticed that I’ve begun to take time to play when no one is looking, cry when I feel like crying, laugh when the absurdity of life presents itself, and pray with joyful surrender like a child jumping from a high place into his father’s arms. I may not fully understand or enjoy when troubles come my way, but I am learning to see my Savior standing by me as we walk the road to heaven together. In yielding to the will of God, I find myself to be a child once more, growing in grace, trusting in my Father’s plan, and taking in the wonder and the beauty of the life that is mine.
Lean Not on Your Own Understanding
I’ll leave you with this one example. When my children were little, I loved getting down on the floor and playing with them: building towers and spaceships out of blocks, hosting parades of dinosaurs and cars across the family room floor, and making museums and grocery stores on the couches in our living room. I cherished the times when we sat together in the big recliner as I read chapter books in the evenings before bed. And I cried when we faced the tough questions over the death of tropical fish, dealt with bullies at school, or said goodbye when we had to be apart. Through it all, I was learning what it means to love my children the way my Father loves me. And through it all I learned to rediscover the ageless child within me.
I still find myself visiting those inner places of solitude and solemnity, retreating to where I can seek solace from the One who is remaking my life one day at a time. It is there I hear the Savior calling me to come play amid the memories and dreams that have shaped me into who I am and who I am becoming. It is there also that I find the wisdom and the words that bring healing to my soul and continue to teach me what it means to find eternity in the surrender of a little child.