Recently I spent several days in California with my daughter and her family during their move to a new house. Which is to say, I spent seven straight days watching my grandchildren from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m, or even later, while my daughter and her husband moved, cleaned, shopped and organized. Since I don’t get to see my grandchildren very often, I was in heaven. For the most part.
My grandchildren, Lucie aged 8 and Aleksei aged 5, are beautiful, loving, smart and creative. When Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” I’m sure he was thinking of kids just like them. In fact, they probably know this because they have a CD called “100 Bible Stories, 100 Bible Songs”, which they played for hours on end during my entire visit. And when they weren’t playing the CD, they were singing the songs or asking me to read stories in the book that goes with the CD. I’m sure Jesus loves this about them.
“There is a name I love to sing, and Jesus is his name-o, J-E-S-U-S, J-E-S-U-S, J-E-S-U-S, J-E-S-U-S, and Jesus is his name-o.” This was sung to the tune of B-I-N-G-O, which somehow seemed slightly sacrilegious, but knowing Jesus, he probably wouldn’t agree with me. There were many tunes, 100 in fact, as you may have guessed from the name of the CD, but only certain favorites that the kids played over and over and over and over again. “I’m in the Lord’s Army,” “Be Careful Little Eyes What You See,” “Praise Him, Praise Him.” I think my least favorite was one I remember from my own childhood: “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.” The more I heard it, the more I wondered what in the world it teaches children. What does it mean to be a sunbeam anyway? And odd thoughts like that.
At first, I loved the irony of my daughter and her husband, who are perhaps best categorized as agnostics or Buddhists (bad Buddhists, to be sure as they drink beer and wine and are not above killing ants) having children who love Jesus enough to sing about him for hours on end. As the days went by, it became even more ironic that I would have gladly wrenched open the CD player and whacked the CD to death to avoid hearing it one more time.
Perhaps the greatest irony in this week of ironies, though, was how much that verse, “Suffer the little children…” kept popping into my mind. And not in a good way either. Because, believe it or not, even the most beautiful, loving, smart, and creative grandchildren can, once in a while, get on your nerves. Even when they sing about Jesus. Once I sent Aleksei to his room, again, for a time-out, sitting him down on his bed and saying, “Aleksei, you know that song you sing that says, ‘be careful little hands what you do’? Well, you need to sit here and think about being more careful with your hands. And not hitting your sister.” I sound, perhaps, calmer now than I did then. And did Aleksei say, “Yes, Grammie, you’re right. I repent of hitting Lucie, and will try hard not to do it again”? No. Actually, he ducked under the covers and said, “Please get out!” I got out and set the timer at 8 minutes instead of 5.
Not that Lucie was little Miss Perfect. My granddaughter has an advanced awareness of what’s fair and what’s not, especially when it comes to her own well-being. She also has a developed sense of the dramatic and is not afraid to use her whole voice and body to express herself. She sort of has tantrums. Civilized ones, compared to when she was two, but this is an emotional girl. I became so used to her shrieks of dismay and indignation, that if I didn’t see blood I wasn’t all that concerned.
On about day three of this intense bonding with my grandchildren I began to seriously wonder about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:14. The NIV translation goes like this: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” The Message says it this way: “But Jesus intervened. “Let the children alone, don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.’” Now I understand Jesus letting the little children come to him; hopefully he can bless them and teach them some manners at the same time. But the second part of his statement, the part about the kingdom of heaven belonging to such as these? That one gave me pause.
Having been raised in church, I’ve heard many sermons and discussions regarding this verse, most of which were some version of the idea that Jesus wants us to be innocent and loving like little children before sin rears its ugly head. But watching Aleksei shove Lucie and hearing her blood-curdling scream in response made me wonder. Jesus wants us to act like this? Let me just pause here a moment and say that I love these two kids more than I ever thought it possible to love anyone who wasn’t my own child. They really are delightful, and they love me more than I deserve. Like most other children, however, they can be impulsive, self-centered, selfish, inconsiderate, bossy tattletales who don’t seem to me to be extremely spiritually advanced. And so I wondered: this is God’s kingdom? Is Jesus asking me to aspire to this?
During my drive back home to Oregon, I continued to wrestle with this verse. I don’t claim to be a Bible scholar or particularly astute about such matters, but I did come up with some ideas that make sense to me. In a way, this verse doesn’t so much seem to tell us what Jesus wants us to be as much as it tells us what is acceptable to him: rowdy, noisy, immature beings who want to be close to him. Which is pretty good news to someone like me who appears, most of the time, like a fairly together, quiet, considerate, serious, moral…I could go on, but you get the idea. I like to see myself as much more deserving, much more dignified, and probably much more of the kind of person Jesus would want to be around than a crusty little kid who maybe hasn’t had her nap yet today. But when I’m really, really honest, I will admit that I’m not always as wonderful as I like others to think I am. And sometimes I resemble the wayward child who really doesn’t have a clue how to be spiritual, but who does know full well what it is to be needy.
I think Jesus is telling us two things here that we need to be reminded of now and then: we might be better off admitting who we really are and quit trying to pretend; and we have no business building fences around Jesus to keep out the riff-raff.
On one of my last days there, I learned, again, what children can teach us about Jesus. Aleksei is deathly afraid of bees, and the new house has a big backyard with an abundance of them hovering around the clover. Since San Leandro was suffering from record temperatures during my visit, we spent at least an hour outside every day playing with the cat and dog and with the kids running through the sprinkler. I don’t know how many times I reminded Aleksei to wear his shoes outside because of the bees, and even though he was fearful, he would end up without them once again.
We had had words earlier. About what I don’t remember; but we were both sulking a little. And then he let out a scream that pierced my heart. I knew almost immediately what had happened – he had been stung. The beautiful thing was that he did not hesitate for a second, even though a minute later he had not been speaking to me. He ran to me, flinging himself onto my lap screaming, “Grammie, Grammie, save me!” And I, all irritation gone, never even considered anything but holding him, comforting him, and taking care of the sting.
Jesus isn’t our Grandma (or Grandpa) but he loves us even more, if that’s possible, than I love Aleksei. He doesn’t want us to hesitate to ‘draw near’ to him, whether it’s sauntering, stumbling or running. And he doesn’t want us to discourage anyone else either. Because this is the kingdom: composed of those who are wretched and blessed, anxious and calm, boring and dramatic. We are his, and he will save us.