Last summer, after being accepted into the Episcopal Service Corps, I interviewed for my work placement. When Grace Church’s rector, the Rev. J. Donald Waring, contacted me with the list of responsibilities for the Ministry Assistant position, something stood out to me. Under the heading of “Children, Youth, and Family Ministry” was a line that said, “Coordinate details of our Sunday Church School programs for children aged 4 to 12 years.” The words took me by surprise. After all, I had no experience with children, much less with children’s ministry. In fact, as I read the description to my former work supervisor, she busted out laughing. “You?!” she grinned, “No way!”
Despite my lack of experience, I was looking forward to the opportunity to learn a new skillset. As I began my work, I encountered several challenges. Like any other classroom that includes very young children, our kids can at times be disruptive or inattentive. Some days, Father Chase, and later, Mother Julia, would ask me to teach the lesson. I found myself challenged with the task of telling the biblical story in a captivating way—which became even more difficult when the day’s story included theological precepts that we then had to explain to our students. After all, how does one properly explain the mystery of the Trinity, or the fact that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, to a group of 5 and 6 year olds, when our most esteemed theologians do not fully understand these ideas themselves? But I was particularly unprepared for one challenge: skepticism. I had thought of children as inclined toward belief. When Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3), I have taken this to mean that children are especially meek and mild, whose ears are always opened and whose heart is receptive to the teachings of the faith. So you can imagine my surprise when my students, from time to time, rejected what I had to say. Some found the stories of miracles unbelievable while others were puzzled by the idea that Jesus is God.
I believe Jesus knew this, and that my previous interpretation of this passage was not what he had in mind. After all, God is not a tyrant who demands unquestioning obedience. God is a Father, and like a good parent he welcomes questions and skepticism. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant by asking us to become like children. A child does not shy away from asking tough questions. A child isn’t afraid of bringing their curiosity and skepticism, or to share their anxieties and fear. Unlike children, many adult Christians often approach God the way one might approach a majestic yet far away being. We craft our prayers in flowery and colorful language and bury our fear and questions beneath proclamations of faith. We are too often unwilling, or unable, to approach God in a spirit of openness, and that can stunt our spiritual growth. Imagine how freeing it would be to approach God like a child, open and free with all our questions and our curiosity, our fears and our brokenness. Imagine how much richer our spirituality would be.
It is understandable why some are not open to this idea. The act of opening up is exhausting. It requires us to be in a position of humility and vulnerability. It forces us to examine our beliefs and the reasoning behind them. And worst of all, to be as open as a child may require us to challenge these beliefs, which in turn can disrupt our lives and possibly the lives of those in relationship with us. Yet, that is precisely the purpose of the Gospel. The Jesus who we worship is one who challenged and disrupted the order of the world. Christ’s emphasis on our being like a child is a call for us to be opened to this disruption, to allow God to disrupt our inner world, and through us, disrupt the world outside. And through this disruption, we can participate in the work of bringing God’s kingdom to the world.