Make room for the kingdom guides
Reflection by Mart the Rev
Recently I enjoyed a creative conversation with Geoff New, one of our teachers at the Knox Centre for Ministry & Leadership in Dunedin. Geoff was bouncing off a poem I had written contrasting the way my grandson Finn lives his two year old life, with a daily expectation that life will delight him, while many of us older ones seem to have developed a less buoyant and hopeful way of being.
[Our daughter Hana was saying the other day that down at the southern coast beach near where they live in Wellington, Finn will pick up a stone that no one else would even notice, look at it closely, and say a slow, ‘Wow!’ He routinely collects stones he likes in a basket Hana has found for him.]
Geoff New told me about his little grandson and how he had similar observations to mine. Geoff sent me an excerpt from a book he is about to publish on preaching. In the excerpt he describes the story of the little children coming to Jesus as a sign of the way we should talk of the kingdom of God, especially in our pulpits!
Geoff writes: “The issue is whether we preach like a kingdom guard or a kingdom guide. The quality of our preaching can either be like a rebuke which hinders people approaching Jesus or like little children who help model how this kingdom is received.” Guard or guide!
It is quite clear watching little children that there is very little guard in them! They are too busy in the world of imagination to want to put walls up, or rules! The adults in the room have to monitor safety for them but I’ve observed they often behave as guards rather than guides. The fear of the worst-case scenarios that rarely eventuate can drive the adults to taking all the fun out of life. Would you agree?
Have you had experiences with little ones where they have led you into a way of seeing that you have long forgotten? That’s what I’m discovering as I am invited into seeing the world through Finn-shaped eyes.
Early childhood is so obviously the time of greatest adventure – every day contains things that are new. I have no memory of when I lived all my waking days with wide-eyed wonder. He is helping me recover what I once was like. I notice that his parents are far more open to his adventuring than mine were to me, and more open than I was with my own children. Oh how I wish I could have parented like them! Despite their high-pressured jobs they live a very playful family life.
In Geoff New’s book excerpt, he relayed some of the experiences he has been having with his grandson – about the dynamics of how the play happens and the way his grandson pulls into the way the world looks through the wondering eyes of a little one. As I read what Geoff wrote I was struck by one line in particular, it was like it was a phrase that could have been in Psalm 23 (if it wasn’t so rural): “He takes me to small spaces behind furniture.” So I wrote Geoff a poem, using almost all of Geoff’s words from his story about the way his grandson acts as a kingdom guide. As you listen, you might find it interesting to ponder the parallels between how the child is with his grandfather and how God is with us.
To let the little child come to me
[Geoff New words tweaked just a little by Martin Stewart]
One thing he regularly does is take me by the hand to guide me to something of great interest to him.
Often, when we get to what he wants to show me, he will pull on my hand to sit me on the ground with him.
He brings me down to his level to see as he sees, and experience what he experiences.
What might appear to be ordinary to an adult is a source of great delight to this small child.
A leaf on the ground holds as much delight as seeing an elephant.
A toy becomes the means to play a game of let’s-pretend.
A book is read by pointing to colours, in such a way that a never-before-told story unfolds between us.
He takes me to small spaces behind furniture. He changes how I speak, what I see, and how I feel.
He shows me the world through his child eyes and helps me experience the world with new delight.
He changes my guard-like attitude with his guide-like example.
(And then I, the poet, ask at the end: Is this how you will restore my soul O Lord?)
You change my guard-like attitude with your guide-like example. Is this how you restore my soul O Lord?
Those disciples! Who taught them to guard people from Jesus? The very ones they were keeping away from Jesus were the teachers of the kingdom way. Adults tend to make the kingdom of God into a set of prop-ositions, or rules, or gateways, or ideological dreams. Children are not interested in any of that. Here’s what Jesus proposes: children, with their way of seeing and adventuring, already have a significant foothold the kingdom. The kingdom belongs to them! Belongs! Jesus is saying that if you want to understand the kingdom of God you have to crouch down alongside its inhabitants, the tangata whenua of the kingdom, these children, your teachers, and watch and see through their peculiarly gifted eyes and ears and imaginations. Then you will be able to get what he is on about. How about that!
Recently I was talking with a man who told me of the struggle he and his wife are having with how their son is. Their son is a reclusive academic. He’s quite brilliant but not especially good with people and relationships. He is their only child and lives in the northern hemisphere and they doubt very much that he will ever find his way to a significant relationship that might generate a family. This realisation is causing them some real heartache. As you will be able to understand this is one of the great losses that many people around us have to negotiate. The distance from little children to engage with and love is a real loss for many people, but also, understandably, a great loss for any who don’t have the fun of nudging up against the ways children see and engage with the world. Hopefully there are children in the wider family circles. Usually there are.
Over the years I have conducted the funerals of quite a number of people who didn’t have the opportunity to have children of their own. What has been an outstanding feature of the lives of most of them has been the high regard they have been held in by their nieces and nephews or the children of neighbours. They have been able to play a role of alongside these children in ways that their parents might not have been able to.
What was quite heartening in my conversation with the man the other day was his closing comment:
‘We are just going to have to get closer to the children and their families at church. Thank God we have a church family to help us find our way through this.’
Meanwhile, I am willingly submitting to having Finn as my current teacher. In his little uncomplicated self, Finn is almost completely attuned to wonder as a key part of daily living. He is alive. He is as far from being dead as you can possibly get, not only greatly distant from the old age that we hope he gets to, but also greatly distant from any idea that life should be limited. He is alive as well as living!
I’m sure that if I can recover a similar attitude of openness to the wonder of things, then I think I will also be kept young, open, saved from apathy, better able to negotiate change, and more attuned to the way God refreshes and restores my life every day. Is that how you also want to be? Unfortunately, life and systems will gradually work to erode Finn’s capacity to live so freely in the land of seeing. The days will come when he will grow in fear and have a sense of life’s limitations. I hope it is a long way off, and even when these things come to visit his life I hope he isn’t dominated by them. While I can, I will look to him as a guide and learn from him, so that if necessary, as his grandfather, I might be better equipped to guide him in the ways of wonder as the system around him insists that he ‘grows up.’ But in the meantime, Finn is the best possible candidate I know to train me in the art of being alive. At present I sense that he is the best possible life-coach I have. All I have to do is let him guide me to places like ‘the small spaces behind furniture.’ The kind of places I and most adults I meet have lost the art of seeing.