The baptism of children reveals some of the best things about church, in terms of belief and practice. Symbolically a child, or today two children, are at the centre of this rite. For this moment our usual concerns – that is to say adult concerns and priorities – are put to one side, and our focus, the grace in our midst, is a child.
In the Bible there are four books (gospels) about Jesus; or rather what his followers remembered and thought about Jesus. In two of those books Jesus is never a child. He arrives on the scene as an adult.
And this is not surprising in an adult-centric world. The rights of children, particularly those not of the wealthy classes, were minimal. Their literal survival was the due to a decision of the male head of house. Then they were adults-in-training, awaiting the day when they had rights that came with adulthood.
In the Bible readings today, we have Jesus’ disciples acting as brokers, determining who could have access to Jesus. Children had little power, and were seen as of little use. The disciples kept them away. Jesus however rebuked his brokers. He wanted the children to have access.
But he went further. As the disciples talked about who was the greatest – the greatest influence, affluence, wisdom maybe – Jesus turned to the children. And placed them at the centre.
The two books in the Bible that did tell of Jesus as a child, also made some grand statements about this child. Not statements just about how the child would be when he was an adult. But about the child now.
Yes, I know, what we call the Christmas stories were written much later than the rest of those gospels. And yes, I know the writers weaved all sorts of later themes into those stories, bathed baby Jesus with divine accolades, and festooned his arrival with the wonder of angels, Magi, and a wandering star.
But at the heart of these stories is a theologically and culturally perplexing, upside-down mystery: God is here in our midst as a child. Grace and hope and light came as a child.
I don’t think the disciples, or the gospel writers and editors, or indeed even us church folk today, understood and understand what this means. And neither do I. So, what follows are a couple of guesses.
I guess it means the child is the most important, ‘greatest’, thing.
There is a lot of talk, by a lot of people, by a lot of cultures, about how they value children. But talk is easy. Action is much harder.
Our current government four years ago talked about prioritizing children, especially children in poverty. But then other concerns jumped to the front of the queue. One week it might have been housing shortages, another week economic concerns, another week gun control. And then there was a pandemic.
I’m not trying to bag our current government. I’m trying to point out that with the best will in the world, the needs of children are pushed away from the front of the priority queue. As has been the case, government after government, of whatever hue, decade after decade. Good outcomes for children, when they happen, seem to be usually a byproduct of a policy directed towards adults (like when their parents get more cash in hand).
So, this week, do we adults really care enough about New Zealand children to tell soft-drink manufacturers to lower sugar levels when many of us adults quite like to have the choice to buy sugary drinks, or are reticent to tell other adults they can’t have a choice? I would be surprised if children’s teeth, children’s health, is prioritized ahead of adult sensibilities.
I would be surprised because despite the rhetoric of all cultures in this land we do not value children. Their needs, their safety, their education, their health, do not go to the head of the queue no matter who is in charge, no matter what culture you are talking about. Ask the Children’s Commissioners over the last decades. And I think we would be better off to say it, rather than pretend otherwise, or go about blaming parents, or benefit levels, or Oranga Tamariki, or governments we didn’t vote for. Admit our failings.
So, God as a child is a deeply confronting image – like with those first disciples it confronts what we value, who we think should be first or last, and what we think our priorities as cultures, businesses, community organizations, and churches should be.
That’s my first guess.
My second guess is that God as a child infers that children have a lot to teach us about the soul.
I’m reminded of Bob Fulghum’s All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten:
1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don't hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
6. Don't take things that aren't yours.
7. Say you're SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11. Live a balanced life - learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
12. Take a nap every afternoon.
13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the polystyrene cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the polystyrene cup - they all die. So, do we.
16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.”
Bob’s list is fun reminder, though I’d probably change a few things now. Importantly it reminds us that there are things in childhood that nurture and nourish the soul, and as we grow older, we can forget how fundamental they are.
Like sharing is not just a social, economic or political strategy. Something happens to us when we give or share what we have with others. As one children’s book says, ‘We feel all sunny inside’.
Like hitting and hurting and sorry are not just about fracturing and mending relationships. A smile, affirmation, kind words, kind deeds, attentive and empathic listening, received or given, enlarge our soul.
Like going out, watching for ‘traffic’, holding hands, and sticking together – the actions and orientation of community, not only build social support and cohesion, they feed our soul. We are communal creatures, and our soul is only truly at home when with trusted others.
Like eating, drinking, drawing, painting, singing, dancing… When did you last draw or paint a picture? No matter how skilled or unskilled we are there is something in the doing, that does something inside us. And children seem much more ready to give it a go.
And like wonder, and LOOK. Prayer is more about wonder and LOOK than any words or pious thoughts. It’s about opening your soul to be lost in the magic and mystery of all that is. Prayer is about the awareness of the Sacred in everything.
Our first reading today is by the poet and spiritual teacher Padraig O’Tuama. Back in March he was in New Zealand but unfortunately his Auckland retreat was cancelled due to Covid. The poem includes these verses:
That life is sometimes good
and sometimes better than good.
That life is often not so good.
That life is real
and if you can survive it, well,
survive it well
and meaning given
where meaning’s scarce.
Life flows. Sometimes good and great things happen, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes hard and bad things happen. But survive/thrive in it, in its reality – with a wee helping of meaning – but, more importantly with ladles of love and art.
I think the grace a child holds out to us is love and art:
the love of trust, touch, responsibility, nurture, protection, and joy
& the art of spontaneity, adventure, enthusiasm to give it a go, play, and fun
And it is in baptism that we celebrate these great gifts, gifts to our soul, and return the blessing.