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  • Writer's pictureRichard A. Jones

Keeping Alive Our Child's Heart

Matthew 18…The disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of God?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of God. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

A few days later, when Jesus had traveled from Galilee to Judea, we read in Matthew 19….People brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Talk about a short memory! Earlier that week, the disciples had heard Jesus say that the kingdom of God belongs to the children. Now, little children are gathering around Jesus,…and these same disciples are pushing the children aside to make room for the adults.


Have you ever heard someone talking about a church function, and saying: “There were about a hundred people there, not counting children?” Does not counting children mean that children don’t count?

Sometimes, it seems like adults specializes in getting things backwards:

—We try to hurry children to become like grown ups, when Jesus said that grown ups are the ones who need to become like children.

—We seem to think that we need to give extensive information to children in order to teach them about God. But if we knew how to listen, it is the children who would teach us about God.

—We think we need to instruct children in what they should believe, and what they need to do in order to have faith,….

…Yet, in all of the interaction that Jesus had with little children, he never once said, or even implied, that they needed to believe something, say something, do something, or be anything other than who they already are.

Don’t misunderstand. Jesus is not talking about being childish, he’s talking about being child-like. Our problem is, we sometimes have trouble knowing the difference. It seems to me that there are an abundance of childish adults. But child-like adults?….not so many.


When Jesus said “little” children, I wonder how old they were. When does it happen? At what age do the eyes stop sparkling, and the unbridled laughter turn into a cynical smile? At what age does suspicion replace trust, and faith either disappears altogether, or becomes merely a little Sunday morning religious habit? When does the sheer joy and delight of living begin to wear thin? When does the human spirit become blind and deaf, and the child’s heart become hardened to the mystery of God?

What can be done when faith has become weak, and life has turned fearful and small? Jesus says, “Change and become like little children.” “Humble yourselves like a child.” What does this mean?


Humble yourselves

Humility means low-lying. It comes from the same root word as humus, the organic component of soil. It also is close kin to the word human. Genesis says that God formed the man out of the earth. Does it offend us, to be related to dirt?

To humble ourselves—is to leave the lofty heights of who we pretend to be, and come down to who we really are.


Someone has said that. “Of all God’s creatures, we humans are the only ones who have difficulty being ourselves.” But little children don’t.

They have no past to hide, no pride to defend, no agenda to promote, no image to guard, no ego to protect. They are not impressed with rank, class, wealth, status, or position. You, me, the richest person in the world, the kid next door, or the president of the United States. To little children, it makes no difference who you are.

And they won’t try to impress you. Unlike adults, there is no pretense of trying to make you think that they are better, smarter, holier, or more important than they are. With little children, like it or not, what you see is what you get,.

For just a few minutes, let’s take a journey into the heart of a child—this child-like humility that Jesus says opens us to the kingdom of God.

Barb and I raised four children. I am going to exercise my parental prerogative to embarrass them by telling a few family stories.


Humility Invites Questions

Little children are not afraid to ask questions. They don’t pretend to know more than they really do. For children, all creation, all experiences, all stories, are doorways to questions.

One night Jason, our oldest, when he was about five years old, was getting ready for bed. It was probably a Sunday after he had been to church that morning and heard the word sin. He asked: “Dad, what would it be like if people didn’t sin?”

We always tried to encourage our children to think for themselves, so I said, “What do you think?” He gave his usual Jason response, he didn’t say anything. He brushed his teeth and climbed into bed. But I could tell that the wheels were turning. Finally, he said, “I think it would probably be better.”—Pretty good answer.

To say that Jasmine and Le’Brea liked playing in the mud would be a great understatement. Once when we were in the car, Jasmine said, “Daddy, do you think there is mud in heaven?” Without waiting for an answer, she said, “I sure hope so.”

She did not want some sterile forensic explanation about mud or heaven. These little girls just wanted to dive in and find out about mud for themselves—and they often did, literally!

Le’Brea was the queen of questions: Insects, plants, animals, dirt, stars, rocks, people, God, or snow storms. Everything about life stirred questions in her. If I had a dollar for every time Le’Bria asked “why,” I would be rich.

Many adults have quit asking any good questions about God, or faith, or life. They have been given too many answers too soon. There is little pondering left in them. Their “why’s” have dissipated into presumed facts.

Socrates isn’t read much any more. That ancient Greek philosopher who said, “We must not only answer questions, we must question answers.” And oh my, did Le’Bria know how to question my answers!

So much of church today is telling, explaining, instructing, defining, defending, proving, and giving answers. Much of what many adults call “truth” has been spoon fed to them. They have been trained to just listen, believe, and repeat what they have been told. They no longer dive into their own experience seeking truth. There seems to be little interest in “Taste and see (for themselves) that the Lord is good.”

Questions were the bait that Jesus often used to draw people into the truth of God: “Which one was neighbor to the man?”—“What do you think?”“What did Moses command?”—“Which son did the father’s will?”—“What will the king do?”

In Mark 12, a teacher of the law asked Jesus, “Of all the commands, which is the most important?”…Jesus responds, “ Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And Love your neighbor as yourself”…”Well said, teacher,” the man replied.

Mark 12:34 “When Jesus saw that (the man) had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” That’s it!? You are not far…!

Can you picture someone today asking some pastors, teachers, or Christian scholars, “What is the greatest command?” There would be a dozen Bible verses quoted, a sermon on the connection between law and grace, a detailed explanation of the meaning of salvation. Followed by a “repeat after me” quoting of the “sinner’s prayer.”

But Jesus simply said, “You’re not far from the kingdom,” and walked away. In other words, keep going, keep asking, keep searching. I think Jesus knows that one honest step of my own toward God, is worth a hundred steps that someone tries to take for me.



As parents, we read to our children from C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and George MacDonald, so they grew up on stories, legends, fairy tales, and fantasies. Another favorite book of theirs was Lucy Maude Montgomery’s classic novel, Anne of Green Gables.

In the movie version, Anne is at the Cuthbert farm, “on trial” (as she put it) to see if she is to be adopted. Marilla, on a beautiful fall day, is walking Anne to her first day of school. Anne is offering up, to Marilla, one of her detailed day dreams. When Marilla voices her disapproval of what she calls “foolishness,” Anne says: “Marilla, don’t you ever imagine things differently than they are?” Marilla, with great confidence, replies, “I certainly do not.” To which Anne responds, “Oh Marilla, how much you miss.”

If I would change and become like a little child, I must reclaim imagination.

It was books like George Macdonald’s, A Faerie Romance, and Lilith, that C.S. Lewis said “baptized” his imagination. Lewis argued that, “While reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning.”

Albert Einstein said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

English writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton said, “I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any book so sensible since.”

Scottish author, George MacDonald goes even further: “It is marvelous how children can reach the heart of truth at once….Imagination is one of the most powerful of all the faculties for aiding the growth of truth in the mind.…Do not let anyone think that such employment of the divine gift of imagination will lead to foolishness: While the intent is to discover the true and right way, there is little danger of that…If we do not employ our imagination on sacred things, the example of Jesus can be no use to us except in exact corresponding circumstances.”

Did you catch that last part. Let me rephrase it. If I don’t use my imagination, I can listen to a sermon, or read about the good Samaritan, and merely tell myself that if I ever found someone in that circumstance, I would help them…And then, as I go about my life, I could easily overlook and dismiss a hundred situations requiring my compassion, because Jesus did not say anything specifically about that.

You see, when Jesus told stories and spoke in analogies, in essence, he was saying, “Use your imagination.” Imagine a father with two sons…Imagine a man going on a trip…imagine the kingdom of God as a seed planted in good soil….

When he said “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sick, I was in prison”…He didn’t mean it literally. He meant that 'as you look at the broken, hurting people in this world, Imagine that they are me. What will you do?'

Hebrews 13:3 Continue to remember those in prison as if you were there fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. In other words, imagine that you are there, imagine that you are them. Will that change how you respond to the suffering people of this world?

Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is not merely some glib doctrinal definition. This is a manifesto.

It is a call to imagine this world differently than it is: to see it whole, bursting with joy, people restored, creation reclaimed. Even as the world seemed dark and hopeless, people were enslaved, and the brutality of Rome was a daily reality, Jesus prayed, Father…“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth…And he actually meant it.

He imagined the possibilities of what this world could be, and he devoted his entire life to making it reality. Imagination is the springboard of faith into action. Jesus imagined God’s will and eternal purpose rippling through all creation. What do I imagine for God’s world?



Little children forgive easily, don’t they?…and it drives adults crazy. The one who was mean to them yesterday, might be their best friend today. But, you see, the wrongs of yesterday are forgotten, because little children live fully in the present

Bitterness and resentment live in the past. It will take a child’s heart to let go and offer forgiveness.



Another thing about little children, that drives adults crazy, is their blunt, straight-forward, no-holds-barred, in-your-face honesty.

I was coaching high school boys’ basketball and we had just lost a home game. Afterwards, our six year old daughter, Le’Brea, gave me her commentary on the game. “Daddy, that other coach told his boys better things than you did.”

One time, while sitting behind me on our kitchen counter, Le’Brea said, “Daddy, your hair is really short (As in bald) in the back.”

Now I am sure that we don’t need to say everything we think, but many adults have learned to dance around the truth so much they have almost forgotten how to tell it at all.

They duck and weave around their real feelings. They are worried about what people might think. They pretend to be interested when they really aren’t. They smile when they don’t mean it. They dodge difficult issues, and they talk in pleasant half-truths to avoid conflict.

I’ll take the honesty of children any day!



Little children accept people. Not only do little children not care about differences in people, sometimes they aren’t even aware of them.

If you lived in Westcliffe, Colorado very long, you would probably know who Roy Dickens is, or at least you would know if I described him. Roy is different. Most people don’t know much about him.

He sometimes eats supper in the grocery store. When Peyton and Dupri, two of our grandchildren, were four or five years old, they would see Roy in the store. One would say to the other, “Look, it’s Roy.” And they would run over to him, stand by him, say hi, and usually ask him a question or two. They simply saw him as a friend to talk to. Sometimes, they even hung around long enough to hear a little of Roy’s humor, which hardly any adults, now living, have ever heard.

When our daughter Jasmine was in pre-school, a little boy was trying to describe her to his mother. She shared with Barb what her son said: “You know, mom, she’s that girl who really likes to swing.” “She’s the one who laughs a lot.” “She’s the girl who has all those beads in her hair.” In all of the descriptions he gave of Jasmine, he never once mentioned that she was black.

Sadly, all too often, either overtly or subtly, children learn from adults that differences should matter. They will learn to segregate, avoid, ignore, and even fear those who are different than themselves.

The National Conference for Community and Justice was formed in 1927 to bring diverse people together. In 1936 they organized National Brotherhood Week. It was billed as a time for extending good will and understanding to people of different races and faiths.

Ironically, this was just before the time that Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party began persecuting, arresting, and killing Jews. In America, segregated schools would not be seriously challenged for almost another twenty years. And it would be almost thirty years before the Civil rights act was passed, which would do away with the Jim Crow Laws, by which many southern states mandated racial segregation in all public facilities.

If you are as old as I am, you may remember Tom Lehrer’s 1965 satirical song titled: National Brotherhood week:

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks,

And the black folks hate the white folks.

To hate all but the right folks

Is an old established rule.

But during national brotherhood week, national brotherhood week,

Lena Horne and sheriff Clarke are dancing cheek to cheek.

It's fun to eulogize

The people you despise,

As long as you don't let 'em in your school.

Oh, the poor folks hate the rich folks,

And the rich folks hate the poor folks.

All of my folks hate all of your folks,

It's American as apple pie.

But during national brotherhood week, national brotherhood week,

New Yorkers love the Puerto Ricans 'cause it's very chic.

Step up and shake the hand

Of someone you can't stand.

You can tolerate him if you try.

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,

And the Catholics hate the Protestants,

And the Hindus hate the muslims,

And everybody hates the Jews.

But during national brotherhood week, national brotherhood week,

It's national everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood week.

Be nice to people who

Are inferior to you.

It's only for a week, so have no fear.

Be grateful that it doesn't last all year!

Tom Lehrer knew that no conference or government program, no law or policy, no mandate or ordinance can make people accept one another. Jesus knew it too. We must change and become like little children.


Awe, Wonder, and Mystery

As parents, we tried to give our children the opportunity to touch the wonders of creation first hand. They roamed the woods and fields, hiked in the mountains, and played in creeks and irrigation ditches from the time they could walk.

When our younger son, Jarod, was about four years old, he and I were out walking. I looked down and noticed that Jarod was not beside me. I turned around, and saw him about thirty feet behind me. He was on this hands and knees, with his face about six inches from the ground.

I walked back to where he was, and before I could say a word, Jarod, with great excitement, said, “Daddy, you didn’t even see this worm.”—And he was right.

As adults, we glance up and say, “It sure is cloudy today.” Our grandson, Creed, who was four, was staring up at the sky. And with wonder in his voice, he said to me, “Papa, those clouds are moving.”

Unlike adults, little children don’t just want to look at a pretty view of the distant mountains. They look for the details. They want to be “up close and personal.” They ponder creation, they stare at it all: rocks, sticks, leaves, the bark on a tree, water as it drips, clouds…or a worm.

I am intrigued by two very different accounts of creation found in Scripture. First, from The ancient Hebrew king David, in Psalm 19. And I imagine David, with his arms outstretched toward the sky as he proclaims:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.

Their is no speech or language

where their voice is not heard Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.

It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth….

And then, there is David’s son, Solomon in Ecclesiastes 1

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

All things are wearisome….

What has been will be again…

…There is nothing new under the sun.

David had the heart of a child. To him the rhythms and mysteries of creation brought warmth, joy, and life…each new day. Solomon’s heart had grown hard and cold. Awe, wonder, mystery, and the glory of God had somehow been wrung out of him. He saw the rhythms of nature as merely a boring and repetitious routine. And he greeted the morning with “Oh well, another day.”


Children Celebrate Joy Repeated

Last summer, I was sitting on our back porch with our grandson, Creed. I watched as he pushed our porch swing—jumped into it—turned around—and jumped out again…….37 times in succession! I counted.

G.K. Chesterton :Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated… They always say, “Do it again”, and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead…It is possible that God says ever morning,”Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. (“Do it again”)…It may be that God has the eternal appetite of (a child); but we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

In our world of science and technology where mystery is seen only as a temporary lack of research—In a global economy where everything is practically at our fingertips—In a world of apps, links, you tube, Wikipedia, and google maps

In an American Christian culture where God has been dissected, defined, made predictable, and reduced to doctrines to be believed in, it will take courage and perseverance to keep awe and wonder alive within us, and to embrace the permanent mystery of God.

220 years ago, William Wordsworth understood this battle and sought desperately to hold on to his child’s heart. On March 26,1802 he wrote the poem, My Heart Leaps Up:

My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die! The Child is father of the Man; And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from her poem Aurora Leigh:

“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

Little Children may not be able to explain it or articulate it, but in their spirits, they know what so many adults have forgotten—In this world that God created, we walk on holy ground.


“Whoever humbles himself like a little child Is greatest in the kingdom of God.…unless you humble yourselves, change, and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God…”

Do I truly believe, as Scripture says, that God is “unsearchable and beyond tracing out?” Then let me never stop asking good questions, even if they challenge my comfortable answers.

Let me nurture a “baptized” imagination. Let me dream the world as the kingdom of God. And let me live my life to help make the dream come true.

Let me not be enslaved by past wrongs done to me, but live in the present and forgive quickly.

Let me be honest…No, not hurtful. Not everything needs to be said. But let me, more often than not, say what I really mean, and be who I really am.

Let me lay down suspicion and fear of those who are different from me, and accept others, extending the hand of friendship to all who will receive it.

Let me not allow my life to merely be defined by facts, routines, habits, duties, and obligations. May my faith be more than merely doctrines believed. May my heart be caught in the joyous grip of awe, wonder, mystery, and the glory of God…again, and again, and again!

I think Jesus knew that when we loose our child-likeness, we loose something of our humanity.

In Matthew 18:10 Jesus said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

Although it is not explicitly stated in Scripture, tradition has developed the concept of guardian angels. It is generally the idea that the purpose and responsibility of guardian angel’s is to watch over children and keep them safe.

I don’t know if there are guardian angels or not. But if there are, I don’t think that their purpose is to try to keep children safe…. I think there purpose is to try to keep children………children.

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