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When Children Teach
June 9, 1991

I SAMUEL 16:14-23, MATTHEW 18:1-5

We celebrate our children today. Have you ever wondered how children see adults? Listen to this Child's View of Retirement in a Mobile Home Park.

We always spend Christmas with Granma and Granpa.

They used to live up here in a big brick house,

But granpa got retarded and they moved to Florida.

They live in a park with a lot of other retarded people.

They all live in tin huts.

They ride tricycles that are too big for me.

They all go to a building they call the wrecked hall, but it is fixed now. They all do exercises but not very well.

They play a game with big checkers and push them around on the floor with big sticks.

They also go to the wrecked hall on Wednesday nights and play a game called bin go.

There is a swimming pool but I guess nobody teaches them; they stand there in the water with their hats on.

My granma used to bake cookies for me, but nobody cooks there.

They all go to restaurants that are fast and have discounts.

When I was 18 years old and the pastor of two Methodist churches, I was an expert. I knew a lot about a lot. Especially was I an expert on marriage, until I got married, and realized I didn't know much about marriage at all. So, then I became an expert on children, until we had some. Then I became an expert on youth, and served as a youth minister when our boys were children. But, then they became teenagers, and I became an expert on the midlife crisis, until I had one. Now, I am an expert on geriatrics, but at my age I'm quickly learning I don't know much about geriatrics either. I used to think I was an expert on pastoring large churches, until I came here. Now, I realize I don't know much about anything, and it's okay. The world has enough experts and consultants. Relax, enjoy each day, marvel at God's creation, including people, and play. That's what adults can learn from children.

Jesus must have surprised and angered his contemporaries with his revolutionary idea that adults can learn from children. Not only did he call children the "greatest in the kingdom of heaven," Jesus said that adults will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless they become like children. As far as we know, Jesus did not teach children how to be religious; children already are religious. Jesus did not teach children about spirituality, but Jesus used children as examples to adults of spirituality. In our Old Testament lesson we heard how David calmed King Saul. By playing the harp, David taught Saul about spirituality. He led Saul into an experience where Saul's troubled and anxious spirit was reconciled to God.

It's too bad Jesus wasn't more specific. What can adults learn from children specifically about the kingdom of heaven? But, isn't it just like Jesus to leave it up to our imagination. Jesus delighted in tickling our curiosity, awakening our imagination, rather than giving us all the answers. Jesus seemed to want us to play with our curiosity, fantasize, be inquisitive, and delight in being alive, like children. Let me share a few of my observations of what children can teach.

Children can teach adults a great deal about caring for one another, about loving affectionately, openly, and caringly. One of the "perks" of my job is to get my daily hugs from the children in the Children's Center. One day, the children were receiving safety instruction by members of the Palo Alto Police Department, one of whom was dressed in a bear's costume. When I went into the room, I screamed, "There's a bear in here!" and went through several antics. I also like to play! The children laughed and squealed, but one girl came up to me and took care of me by saying, "It's okay; it's only a person wearing a mask." The next day when I entered the room, the children came running up to me, and said, "You can come in today; it's okay because the bear isn't here today!" Children are great caretakers and caregivers. Children seem to know that caring is the essence of the kingdom of heaven. We are put on this earth to care for one another, and to care for the earth and all of God's creation.

Children can teach adults about wonder. Wonder, awe, mystery, astonishment are essentials in worship, and too many adults have lost the sense of wonder. They are too practical, too materialistic, too pragmatic. Too many adults use only the right side of the brain, and the left is ignored or repressed under the illusion that we are to be reasonable, rational, sensible people; falsely believing that God wants us to use only our minds and not our hearts.

Ray Bradbury wrote, "It is a good thing to renew our sense of wonder. Space travel has made children of us all again." A spiritual experience I cherish is the memory of sitting around the television set that Sunday afternoon in 1969, watching with held breath Neil Armstrong climb down the ladder and put his foot on the moon! Imagine, a man on the moon! Imagine what is out there! The vastness, the mystery. And, all the wonders are not out in space. There are wonders all around you. Observe a child captivated with something you call ordinary. Zorba the Greek opened his eyes in astonishment and his gaze was so intense he frightened a man riding a mule. When questioned, Zorba explained, "Didn't it strike you that there are such things as mules in this world?" Aren't mules amazing? Did you ever experience the wonder of a mule?

Children can teach adults about wonder. J. Robert Oppenheimer once said, "There are children playing in the street who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago." Sam Keen in his book, Apology for Wonder, wrote, Wonder, in the child, is the capacity of sustained and continued delight, marvel, amazement, and enjoyment. It is the capacity of the child to approach the world as if it were a smorgasbord of potential delights, waiting to be tasted. It is the sense of freshness, anticipation, and openness that rules the life of a healthy child. The world is a surprise party, planned just for me, and my one vocation in life is to enjoy it to the fullest--such is the implicit creed of the wondering child...To wonder is to live in the world of novelty rather than law, of delight rather than obligation, and of the present rather than the future.

Children can teach adults to care, to wonder, and to play. If there is one thing in common with all children it is play. Is Jesus saying that only playful adults can enter the kingdom of heaven? Perhaps we won't be entertained in heaven. We might be expected to do our own playing, and if we don't know to play, or have forgotten how to play, heaven will be quite boring. Have you noticed that children rarely have to be entertained? Some of them have learned how to manipulate adults to wait on them and think up ways to entertain them. But, leave children alone, turn the TV off, and they will play. Folks need to be entertained when they have lost their sense of wonder, creativity, spontaneity, stifling their left brain. Art, drama, music are all aspects of play, of creative play.

Centuries ago in the middle ages, Meister Eckhardt said that mysticism is unselfconsciousness, the ability to play, that creation is the Divinity at play. In our generation we have come up with a divinity that is as tired as we are! We picture God as an old man, judging, not a child playing. Eckhardt wrote, "When we say God is eternal, we are saying God is eternally young." Matthew Fox, the popular Catholic lecturer and author who was muzzled by the Vatican for one year, defines sin as "drying up." Fox says God's invitation to us is, "Come and play. I will be your playmate." Brian Swimme says Einstein's version of the universe is play. In Einstein's universe, everything is dancing. The molecules are playing and dancing in relation to one another. The universe is not static, dead, wholly rational and reasonable; but dynamic, living, moving, mysterious, and playful.

Author Unknown wrote,

when I am an old woman I shall wear purple with a red

hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me,

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

And satin sandals, and say we have no money for butter.

And I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired

And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells

And run my stick along the public railings

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain

And pick the flowers in other people's gardens.

and learn to spit... But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

when suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

Let's all start practicing. Children can teach adults much about the kingdom of heaven. Care for one another, keep your sense of wonder alive, and play.

© 1991 Douglas I. Norris