Becoming Like Children
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 21, 1997


Isaiah 66:12-14 "As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you"
Matthew 18:1-6, 10-14 Becoming like children
Arcana Coelestia #3417.2, 430 Becoming least; the meaning of "child"

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)

Last Sunday Patty, the kids, and I all went down to Yarmouthport for the open house that included our church there and two historic houses nearby. Patty, Heidi, and Caleb went over to the Winslow Crocker house, while I took Chris with me into the church to talk to the people there. We had arrived toward the end of the afternoon, so Chris and I caught the very end of the organ concert that had been going on all afternoon.

Just as we were about to leave, two elderly women hurried into the church--the last of over three hundred people who had come through during the open house. (A record breaker!) They wanted to get at least a quick look at the church. They were parked over by the Winslow Crocker house, where Chris and I needed to meet the rest of the family. So we accompanied the two women down the sidewalk. As Chris trotted along, one of the women cheerfully commented, "We old ladies walk the same way the little ones do: kind of funny and bow-legged, being careful not to trip and fall over."

I replied, "Didn't somebody famous say we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven?"

The women laughed and said, "We do seem to go out the same way we come in! Maybe that's the way God intended it." And the conversation went on.

It was a delightful conversation. I'm sure those women would have been glad to be more nimble on their feet. But what I felt from them was a cheerful acceptance of their situation--and a sense of humor about it. Later, as I reflected on that conversation, I realized that walking "kind of funny and bow-legged" was not the only way these women had become like little children. They had a little child's acceptance of life as it is dealt to us, and a child's sense of wonder and joy at simple things in life. There was a sense of playfulness about them, as if, whatever they must have been through in their long lives, they were going to enjoy their lives right now, in this very moment.

Little children are not known for an acceptance of delayed gratification. If Mommy or Daddy says, "We'll go to the playground tomorrow," for them it might as well be ten years away. Sometimes they are right! It is so easy for us adults to say, "We'll do that tomorrow," meaning, "Maybe some day we'll do it." But a little child knows--or at least feels--that the joy that counts most is the joy we have right this moment.

Of course, this is not the only valid perspective. There is something to be said for our adult sense that we must work now so that we can enjoy ourselves later. For all their joy of life, children are not very good at making sure there is food on the table and a roof over their heads. There are practicalities that we need to attend to; if we don't, we will be too cold and hungry to enjoy life very much. As children grow up, they have to learn to think and act more like adults so that they can make their way in the world.

Unfortunately, too many of us get stuck in that "adult" way of thinking. We see that there is work to be done: there are bills to be paid; lawns to be mowed, garage doors to be fixed, meals to be made. Whether we like it or not, we spend most of our waking hours "taking care of business," and putting off the enjoyment of life for later.

One of the advantages of growing older in our society--an advantage that the women I met down on Cape Cod seemed to be enjoying--is that there comes a time when we can retire from our regular employment, and not have to spend so much of our time just making ends meet. Not that there are no more worries left--we always seem to have some of those. But there is a time when, if we will allow ourselves, we can relax a bit and perhaps move back toward enjoying some of the simple pleasures in life as we did when we were children. Perhaps by that time we have learned to have more of a child's simple faith that our needs will be taken care of in one way or another.

However, in between our toddler stage and our time of retirement there are many years when being like little children is far from our minds. As teenagers, one of our main goals is not to be like little kids anymore. We want to be out on our own, away from the oversight and control of our parents. We want to feel independent and self-directed, to run our lives as we see fit. For a teenager, little kids are often cute and fun, but most teenagers would not want to go back to being one! The position of having to rely on "big people" for all of our needs is just what we want to get away from.

As young adults, we are usually either focused on supporting ourselves and establishing our careers, or we are moving toward having children ourselves--or both. We like to think of ourselves as mature and capable adults . . . as people who run the show, not people who are taken care of by others. Often we are in the position of running the show. If we have children, we are responsible for them. We have to take care of their physical and emotional needs, and direct them away from bad behavior and toward good behavior. If we have a paid job, we have to be responsible for our particular duties.

Our responsibilities tend to grow as we move toward middle age. Our kids get older and we need to help them through more complicated life issues--as well as footing higher bills for their clothing, transportation, education, and so on. We may have moved to a management or leadership position at work, and have greater responsibility on our shoulders in that way as well.

All of the practical and societal pressures are away from being like little children, and toward taking more and more personal responsibility for our own lives and for the lives of others. How, then, can we become like children? And if we have to became like children to enter the kingdom of heaven, how can we ever make it into heaven?

What we have here are two different values in life that, in our experience, are often in conflict with each other. One is the "adult" value of being responsible and reliable and taking care of things and people that need to be taken care of. The other is the "child" value of being happy and joyful and spontaneous in the moment, and trusting that we will be taken care of.

How can we reconcile these two? We certainly can't all quit our jobs and spend our days running around in the fields and playing ball! Anyway, I don't think that is what Jesus meant when he said that we must change and become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. On the contrary, Swedenborg says the angels in heaven all have jobs. Angels do not loll around all day playing harps; they have important work to do!

But there is a difference in their motivation for working, and in their attitude about their livelihood. For one thing, unlike here on earth, in heaven the Lord provides us all the necessities of life as a free gift. Angels do not have to work in order to have food, clothing, and a house to live in. Rather, angels work because they love their jobs. Every angel has a job that perfectly fulfills his or her greatest talents and interests. There is no need for the discipline of monthly bills coming due to keep angels at their jobs. If they were prevented from working for any great length of time, they would really miss it!

Now, it may seem that it would be impossible for us here on earth to have quite the same attitude about work, since we do have to worry about the monthly bills coming due. Still, our attitude toward our work makes an even bigger difference. Jesus said, "Seek first God's kingdom and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matt. 6:33) Yes, we do have to be concerned about where the money will come from. But that doesn't have to be our primary concern. We can shift our thinking away from simply working for money and toward working in order to be useful and serve the needs of others in a way that we enjoy.

Here is where one of our readings from Swedenborg comes in:

Heavenly joy is not the joy that comes from being great and having power over other people; it is the joy that comes from being humble and loving to serve others. So it is not wishing to be the greatest, but to be the least. (Arcana Coelestia #3417.2)

Even if we don't have ambitions of being great and having power over others, we often do have ambitions of having more money and more influence in the lives of the people around us. Swedenborg is telling us that, whatever joy may come from pursuing these goals, it is not the joy of heaven. Rather, the joy of heaven comes from being humble and loving to serve the needs of others. So one way we can become more like little children--and in that way prepare ourselves for heaven--is to do our work, not just for what we can get out of it, but for the joy of giving something to other people.

Children have this joy. Oh, they do sometimes get momentary pleasure out of one-upping their brothers or sisters or friends. But there is nothing like the sunny look of joy on Heidi's face when she gives someone she loves a picture she has drawn for them. Children take joy in the doing and the giving, not just in the getting that comes from doing and giving.

This leads us to another way that we can become like children. As Swedenborg says in our other reading,

In the Bible, "a little one" (a little child) means innocence--and also kindness, since there is no real innocence without kindness. (Arcana Coelestia #430)

When Heidi gives something she has made to someone, part of her joy is in her innocence. It is an innocence that trusts that the person she is giving her creation to will love it and be touched by it. It is the innocence of knowing that someone is there that she can trust her feelings and thoughts to. It is the innocence of knowing that she does not always have to run the show, but can relax, knowing that she will be taken care of.

This is another way that we can change and become like little children. In the midst of all our striving to provide for ourselves and our families, we can pause and realize that we do not have to provide everything for ourselves. We can realize that the Lord is always looking over us and taking care of our needs at a much deeper level than we will ever be aware of. We can realize that, in the Lord's sight, and from a spiritual perspective, we are all like little children who cannot possibly take care of our own needs, but need to trust and have faith in the infinite wisdom and goodness of God.

If we take that kind of innocent trust and faith in the Lord into our daily lives--whether we are in our active, working years or in our retirement--we can gain a different perspective on the responsibilities that fall on our shoulders. We can realize that the world rests on God's shoulders, not on ours. And we can do our daily work, not from a sense of necessity, but from a joy in serving people's needs. Then we will find that, indeed, we have become like trusting children, and indeed, all our other needs are taken care of. And indeed, we will have a little bit of heaven in our lives, right here and now, in the deep joy that we feel when we trust our lives to the Lord's care.



Music: Words of Love
1999 Bruce DeBoer