Toorak Uniting Church

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Wisdom comes from unexpected places

Psalm 1   Mark 9: 30 – 37
Pentecost 17
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
23 September 2012

 Wisdom by Karen Williams
"Wisdom" by Karen Williams
By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is the noblest;
second, by imitation, which is the easiest; and third by experience,
which is the bitterest. ~ Confucius

I was leafing through a magazine recently and they listed 100 of the most unusual names American parents give to their children:

Boys: Adler, Attyson, Bastian, Blayde, Diesel, Sincere, and Sketch.
Girls: Annyston. Brook'Lynn, Harvest, Luxxx, Midnight and Yankee.

I suppose naming children has traditionally meant that you were placing them within a generational line. But perhaps today it has more to do with striking a unique identity for that child, something that will make him or her stand out in the crowd.

On three occasions the gospel writers present Jesus as welcoming children and encouraging the disciples and his followers to see children as guides, mentors and teachers in the spiritual life. In Mark’s gospel we read:

Then Jesus took a little child, whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

Mark 9:36-37

Then in Matthew’s narrative he writes:

…the disciples asked Jesus, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Jesus called a little child and had him stand among them. "I tell you," He said, "Unless you change your heart and mind and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven; those who humble themselves like this child are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven".

Matthew 18:1-6

And later in Matthew’s gospel:

Little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. However, Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and don’t hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

Matthew 19:13-14

Wisdom and new Life can come from Unexpected Places:
The ancient world we know had a very different view of childhood from our modern view. The French author and historian Philippe Aries wrote a landmark book in 1962 titled Centuries of Childhood in which he described the changes that occurred in Western society and our relationship with our children and the very idea of childhood as a particular period in the life cycle. Perhaps in the ancient world at the time of Jesus there was a less sentimental view of children. While it is obvious that children had special needs of food, care and shelter which they couldn’t provide for themselves, they were, as soon as they were old enough, seen as part of the family economy; only in the "leisure class" were children exempted from work in the ancient world. They were to some degree on the same level as the household slaves. They were powerless and expected to bow the knee to patriarchal authority without question.

It seems from the readings in Mark’s and Matthew’s story that this was one aspect that Jesus saw as a kind of teaching device children could present to adults. They were humble! The word in the New Testament is ôáðåéíüù (tapeinóo), meaning to bring low. Of course the word in English is humble, which comes from the Latin root humus – grounded, or of the earth. Now I don’t want to push this too far, but it seems to me that children are closer to the ground than we are and they even have a closer relationship with the earth – with the dirt - than we do.

So this wisdom of children that most of us adults don’t possess has a lot to do with being grounded:

Unless you change your heart and mind and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven; those who humble themselves like this child are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Do you notice that the only way to get to heaven is by being grounded – by being earthed! And that is something we learn from children. Now I will resist the temptation to tell some "grounding" grandpa stories.

The Wisdom of Children:
Children not only represent a humility (ie. they are close to the earth), but they have a fierce honesty. They say things as they are. The most obvious is the Hans Christian Anderson story The Emperor’s New Clothes.

A vain Emperor who cares for nothing hires two swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "hopelessly stupid". The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense, until a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all; the cry is taken up by others. (from Wikipedia)

"Look, mommy!" came a voice at last to challenge the emperor's triumphant mood. "The emperor has no clothes!"

The little boy's words were quickly whispered up and down the procession route and received by everyone with a knowing nod. That made a powerful impression on the emperor, for it seemed to him that these words might weigh heavily on how his story would be passed on through the ages. He quickly called off the imperial procession and instructed the master of ceremonies to announce that urgent business forced him to conclude the procession on the following day.

Children have a capacity to be truthful when the rest of us have been well schooled in the skills, some might say, of...diplomacy.

It is interesting that I have often been told by parents or teachers that children reach a point in their lives when they ask the question, "Is God real and did Jesus really exist?" They want to know if the Emperor is wearing any clothes. Unfortunately, we are very unskilled at answering that question. Somehow or other we need to answer the child in the affirmative, "Yes, God is real and yes, Jesus does exist," but in a way that lets them move from their childish, magical, fairy-tale views into the adult world of subtlety, discernment and significance. We do that in every sphere of a child’s thinking, why can’t we do it in religion?

Okay, I think I have moved away from the story of Jesus blessing the children and placing a child at the centre of his teaching. I don’t think we can get past the fact that the wisdom of children, what they can teach us about the spiritual life, is that much of what they communicate is wordless. Children love and are loved by touch, gestures and wet sloppy kisses.

It was the Persian mystic Rumi who said

Stop the words now. Open the window in the centre of your chest and let the spirit fly in and out.

It’s that unconditional love between a child and a mother or father that displays so much power in our world. I know I have said it before, but Peter Carnley, the retired Anglican Primate of Australia, once said, "You love your children, but you fall in love with your grandchildren." Someone also said, "Grandchildren are your reward for not killing your children." Umm, maybe not appropriate!!

The Unexpected Wisdom of Children:
If the first characteristic of children and what they can teach us is humility – being close to the ground; and the second is their unconditional love; then the third that Jesus alludes to in this story is welcome.

"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

In plain English, if you welcome a child into your life you are welcoming God… strong words. Something that we are recovering in this new age is the idea that we experience God through the world around us. There has been for some time in Christian faith a fear that a deep experience of, say, nature, or human love, would lead us away from God, when in fact it is how we experience the love and nurture of the divine. God, the sacred, the holy and the divine are always mediated though something in this remarkable universe – this creation. That’s what incarnation is all about: "God with us." Paul’s words to the Athenians on Mars Hill reminded them that one of their own poets said: "For in this God we live and move and have our being". As some of your own poets have said, "We are his offspring".

So a child becomes for us a way to God; a way to welcome the presence of God into our lives and a way to be touched by the wonder, beauty and awe of the living God.

I have always enjoyed the Advent song by the hymn-writer Brian Wren. I hope we can sing it this Advent:

When God is a child there is joy in our song;
The first shall be last and the weak shall be strong,
And none shall be afraid.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.