It's inevitable that any discussion about Jesus's teachings comes around to that bit about how we need to become more like little children. Someone always remarks on how sweet and loving kids are, naturally, and how we need to be more like that. Everything about children is so admirable, they say. People nod. It just goes without saying, I guess, that this example makes perfect sense. Only it doesn't to me, at least not in these general terms.
As a mother, I can testify that kids are pretty amazing. My kids have forgiven me for numerous mistakes I'm too embarrassed to list here. They tell me they love me all the time. They're affectionate and generous. But kids can also be bullies (even little kids - my son once shut his friend Ben in a closet at church and then stood in front of it so Ben couldn't get out, and he was 3). They can whine, scream and kick when they don't get their way. They can play all kinds of games to get out of chores, veggies, bedtime, you name it (real genius is a 2 year old who understands the power of manipulation). And they can be downright naughty. My sister-in-law used to teach fourth grade and liked to establish rules (because kids desperately need those). If the kids didn't obey the class rules, she'd write their name on the board, and any subsequent problems added check marks next to their name. One year she had a hispanic student named Jesus who was particularly difficult. I remember her commenting how hard it was for her to write Jesus's name on the board and add multiple check marks next to it. It felt so wrong.
There are plenty of things about kids' behavior that we shouldn't imitate as adults. I realize that this is obvious, but nobody seems to cover that when we talk about the "become as little children" teaching. So exactly what part about being a little child does Jesus (the adult one) mean?
It helps to go straight to the source. In Matthew 18, Jesus squelches a competitive strain that seems to grow even among his own disciples. They come to him asking "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" And this sounds to me like childish behavior on full display. This is like my kids racing to the car every day and yelling about who made it first. This is arguing over who got the most animal crackers or who gets the favorite blue bowl or who is stronger or faster or taller. Only these are adults we're talking about. Disciples.
In response, Jesus brings over a little child as their visual aid and then tells them that "whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." The key, then, is the humility. And humility is greatness.
But visualizing how a grown up is supposed to be as humble as a child (and yes, children are very humble) can be hard. Until you meet an adult who is that humble, and then you get it. There's something different there.
Up the street from us, on the next block, is a little white house that is so simple you could almost miss it. There are no elaborate flower beds out front, no distinguishing bushes. The sprinklers have made yellow arcs on the siding. The only real characteristic that sets it apart is that it sits on the corner and looks somewhat quaint, in a 1950s sort of way. The woman who lives there is a mild mannered, almost timid woman who my husband says talks like Piglet (that gentle, almost nervous voice) and who I think must have been very striking in her youth because she is pretty now, in her 80s. We have been friends with her now for about seven years, and talking to her, it would be easy to assume that she was always as sweet and kind and patient with everyone as she seems to be now. (I find I hold an unrealistic assumption that all old people are nice, and that they must have always been that way.) Once when we were delivering dessert to her, my son dropped the plate, face down, right before we knocked and I said some choice words (rather loudly) and hadn't quite collected myself when she opened her front door. I worried later that she'd heard me and I was mortified because, of course, she would never do anything like that.
But one day she related an incident that changed my whole outlook. When she was young, she said, she'd had a boyfriend with whom she was very much in love and they planned to marry. But he went off to serve in WWII and was killed. Devastated, she nevertheless moved on and eventually found another man with whom she fell in love and was married. Several years later, however, she found herself feeling frustrated with and distant from her husband. He was not a member of her church, and although he supported her in her faith, she resented him for not going to church himself and for not being the kind of husband she wanted him to be, the kind she seemed to see all around her. Her resentment continued to grow, until one day she told her daughters that she felt that her dead boyfriend was the real love of her life. Her husband just didn't match up to what she really wanted or needed. He wasn't the person she'd envisioned she'd spend her life with.
Her daughters, naturally, were upset and told her that she needed to re-think what she'd said because this was their dad, after all, and he was a good man.
It was about this time that she'd started to take long walks. She'd walk by herself for miles, just thinking. And she thought about her marriage a lot. She thought about how, every Sunday when she came home from church, he was waiting for her. He'd make pancakes for her, and they'd sit at the table together and share them and talk. "Every Sunday," she said. "Our little brunch."
And slowly something happened. It took her a while to come around completely, but when she did, she realized she'd been wrong.
Now, her husband is dead, and she lives in the little house alone. But everywhere in her front room are pictures of her husband - young, after the war, and as a older man surrounded by his wife and three daughters.
Last year when we visited her she was agitated about her little house. Several of the shingles had just been blown off in a windstorm, and with a storm coming in the next day or two, she was worried about the roof leaking. She'd lost some sleep over it, so my husband promised we'd get someone there to look at it more closely. It just so happened that, at dinner that night, my father-in-law mentioned the name of a man who had just fixed his neighbor's roof. His name was Cesar, he was from Mexico, worked construction out of town, and lived on the street next to us. I don't recall who called him (my father-in-law or me), but from the first mention of the old woman and the coming storm, Cesar committed to take care of it the next day. True to his word, the next evening, after a long day of work and a two-hour commute, he met us at her house. I introduced them (he only speaks Spanish, and although mine is very rusty, I remembered enough of the basics), and he told her he would take care of everything. And he did. He insisted he buy the necessary shingles and told her she didn't need to pay him for the work. "For this old woman," he told me, "I will do it. It will snow tomorrow."
By this time, it was getting late. It was dark now and cold. Cesar's daughter came and held a giant spotlight. She stood on the ground and positioned the light so it lit up exactly where on the roof he was working. Our friend sat in her house, listening to him walk above her. She told us later she wanted to cry because she realized that, even after he replaced the missing shingles, he was checking to make sure that each of the other shingles was tight. "He checked every single one," she told us. It took him two hours. Cesar on the roof in the dark and cold, and his daughter waiting below with the light. And our friend, listening to him almost dancing out his work above her.
Cesar doesn't go to church either. His wife and daughters go faithfully every week, but it isn't for him. But I've rarely seen anyone do so much for a stranger.
And this is what I think Jesus is talking about when he talks about greatness and the kingdom of God. Maybe I was too hard on the disciples. Maybe they were really asking what greatness looked like. Because sometimes it's hard to identify.
The thing with greatness, with humility, is that it’s very quiet. It doesn't call attention to itself (which means that most things that are loud are not greatness). You have to pay close attention to find it. In fact, you have to be looking. So often it’s in a small house on a corner just up the street from you. It’s an old couple sharing a plate of pancakes on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a man dancing his heart out on an old woman’s roof.
If you're interested, I've also started blogging occasionally for a wonderful literary journal called "Rock and Sling." My first post for them is live right now. You can find it at www.rockandsling.com