I’d like to ask the kids in the room to listen up. I’m going to read you something, and then I want to know what you think about it. Listen: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” How does that make you feel? …
Okay, now I’m going to read you something else. These words come from the great prophet Jeremiah. He says, “The Word of God came to me saying, “Before you were born I set you apart for a special call: I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But GOD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you.” How does that make you feel? …
Thank you so much for listening and sharing your thoughts! I’m going to keep talking now, the way that grownups do. Carry on coloring or drawing – I hope you’ll show me your work, later.
Here’s what I notice about these readings. Paul isn’t actually talking about growing up, here. He’s talking about how we’re only able to see a little bit of God’s greater purposes, and we do not understand the unfolding of the reign of God. So we do best when we simply steer by Love, because that will always lead us true.
Paul is using growing up as a metaphor – saying that now we have a limited, “childlike” understanding of God and the cosmos, but one day we will understand fully – all those great mysteries will be opened to us. So he’s saying some wonderful and important things in this passage. But in the process, he reveals that he thinks kids’ words and thoughts are definitely second-best. I guess he’s forgotten the time when Jesus picked up a little child, and said to his friends, “Listen, unless you all change and become like little children, you’re never going to find your way into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
On the other hand, we have young Jeremiah. This was our assigned Old Testament lesson today; we shared the Candlemas story instead. But I just told you most of it. Jeremiah was a boy when he was called as a prophet. And he says, God, I don’t know how to talk to important people! I’m just a kid! And God says, Don’t say, I’m just a kid! You can do this. I’ll be with you.
Our Gospel story is kind of related to that Jeremiah story. Jesus – who is a grownup at this point – is beginning his public ministry. It’s a really important moment. He goes back to his hometown, Nazareth, where he was brought up. He goes to the synagogue, the local house of worship, where people read Scripture and talk about what it means together. And he reads these words from the prophet Isaiah, saying that he has been anointed to begin God’s great work of healing and redemption! And everyone’s staring at him wide-eyed, they’re really impressed; but what are they saying to each other? “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?”
They like what he’s saying, but they’re having a hard time taking him seriously, because they remember him as a child. They think he’s getting above his raising, for one thing. But also, a lot of people, if they knew someone as a child, have a hard time seeing them as a grown-up. How many of us have gone back to where we came from, one way or another, and found that the older generation there still thinks of us as who we were when we were six or ten or sixteen? They still see you as a child; and they don’t take you seriously, because we don’t take children seriously.
We have this idea that kids’ words and thoughts are not as good, not as important, not as sophisticated. That grownup ways of doing things as better and more important. Jeremiah thought that. Who told him that kids can’t do God’s work? The grownups in his life, that’s who. And Paul thought it too. “I used to think like a child, but then I grew up and put away childish ways!” And we still think this. Our kids get this message over and over again. I would say that in the 21st century, we take kids more seriously than many previous generations of humanity did – but we still don’t take them all that seriously. If you raised your kids in an earlier generation, you might feel like kids today have the world revolving around them. But I promise you, these kids all know what it feels like to have their words and needs not listened to – not believed – even laughed at – because they’re just kids, and the grownups know better.
Paul is right in a way: kids are different from grownups. Kids are not short adults. Kids bring different ideas, perspectives, and needs; and of course kids aren’t all alike – different kids, and different ages of kids, have their own ways of being and thinking and participating. We’ve tried just inviting kids to be part of what the grownups like to do – churches have been trying that for generations, and it doesn’t work terribly well! (A friend once told me, Grownups like to sit around and talk about stuff; they should be in Sunday school. Kids like to march around, play with fire, tell stories, and sing – they should be in church!)
Kids’ voices, kids’ calls, kids’ prayers, kids’ contributions may be different from those of grownups. It would be silly to expect them to be the same. Of course part of what’s different is that we learn and grow. As we get older, we have life experiences, we meet more kinds of people, we encounter different ideas, we reflect on it all; and our understanding of the world gets bigger and more complex. (Ideally!) But there’s something about the freedom and clarity and playfulness and truth of young minds that don’t have all that grownup stuff muddying them up yet – I think that’s why Jesus told his friends they needed to think more like little kids.
So: Sure, kids are kids. They haven’t seen or read or done or thought about as much stuff as your average grownup has, yet. And: God can absolutely work in them and through them. God can absolutely strengthen and guide our fellowship of faith, though the presence and ministry of our kids. God can absolutely have a word for us grownup types, though the voices of our children. Liturgical scholar Louis Weil writes this about why kids belong in church: “It is not only that the child changes by being brought into the community of faith, but that the community itself changes as the mystery of another believer’s life unfolds in the context of community.” (Children at Worship, Congregations in Bloom, xi) And Sylvia Mutia-Miller, one of the wisest voices in the Episcopal Church on kids’ belonging in church, says that adults don’t often anticipate mutuality in relationships with kids.
We expect those relationships to be one directional – grownups helping or teaching kids, and kids receiving. But, she says: The Spirit calls together intergenerational communities because we have gifts for each other.
I’m not talking about romanticizing or idealizing kids. Yes, they say cute stuff and funny stuff sometimes. But kids’ dignity is important to them; they don’t want to be seen as just cute and funny. I’m talking about hearing and receiving kids’ questions, hopes, ideas, needs, and yes, sometimes, their prophetic words.
And I’m not talking about privileging kids over adults. I know sometimes it probably feels that way – we are so used to adults being at the center of church life, and kids being off to the side somewhere, that moving kids towards the center – not TO the center, not even close, but closer – moving kids towards the center, naming them as full members of our faith community, can feel like adults are losing something. If you feel that now and then, dear ones, I ask you to try to trust that instead, we are gaining something. And bear in mind that as of right now, I believe *one* of our church committees has a kid member. Nearly every decision made in the life of this parish is made with little or no input from our 18 and younger population. I hope we’ll reexamine that together in the months ahead. Because that is what I’m talking about: Not putting kids and youth at the top of the ladder, but bringing them to their rightful place at the table, alongside the grownups.
And let me be clear – I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating – that making space for kids and youth to be fully heard and fully included makes more space for many grownups, too. Here are some notable things about kids: Kids are open with their questions; they’re upfront with what they like and what they don’t; if they wonder what we’re doing or why things are the way they are, they’ll speak up about it; they usually let you know when they’re upset, and they bring their whole selves to whatever they do.
Well: A lot Episcopal churches have a culture in which people don’t ask questions, at least not the real ones; pretend they know what’s going on even if they don’t; sure as heck don’t let people know if they’re upset; and bring only the respectable, well-dressed, together parts of themselves to church. But kids are not the only ones who sometimes feel like they don’t have much to offer, or that they’re only welcome if they act like everybody else.
So, grownup friends in Christ, what if welcoming and including kids helps us welcome and include each other – and even ourselves! – as people who have questions! As people who have likes and dislikes, hopes and fears! As people who wonder why things are the way they are! As people who hurt. As people who need to be able to wear their whole selves in public – here, if nowhere else in your life! – within the safety of a community of mutual flourishing and holy friendship, in which together we seek to be transformed and empowered by that Love that is patient and kind; that is never envious, or arrogant, or rude; that does not insist on its own way, and is not irritable or resentful; that never rejoices in another’s failure or misfortune. That Love that bears all things; believes all things; hopes all things; endures all things… and never, never ends.