At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”—Matthew 18:1-4
At our church, and at most churches, we make a big deal out of children. We have special classes for them so we can teach them about God in a way they can understand. We show that they are a priority by the way we structure our staff and our Sunday mornings. This week is Vacation Bible School at Community Church, which means that for five nights we have a whole building full of adults serving children. The adults are doing the work, and the children are the ones being blessed. They are the guests of honor. It’s the same every Tuesday evening during the school year at Awana. We think they are so important that we spend all sorts of time and money and energy to help them understand who God is, and that He loves them deeply.
All of this is right and good. Jesus told His disciples that the world has it backwards: at least when it comes to spiritual things, children shouldn’t be imitating adults, adults should be imitating children. By this he didn’t mean that children are pure and innocent (if you think this, feel free to take a turn volunteering at VBS!). He meant that children are dependent. They are needy and unashamed. They know that they don’t have everything they need, and can’t get it for themselves, so they look to the adults in their lives to supply what they lack. This is how God wants us to be in our relationship with Him. The kingdom of heaven is full of people who take the lowly position of a child, who know that they need God or they won’t survive.
My childhood was spent in Greenville, the beautiful little town on the other side of the mountains that burned in the Dixie fire last summer. Last week I drove through it for the first time since the fire. Maybe you have experienced the feeling of returning to a place from your childhood and everything seems smaller. That was my impression when I drove through Greenville last summer, seeing it for the first time through adult eyes. But this time the smallness was even more noticeable. With all the trees and buildings gone, you can see just how little space that little town actually occupied.
We moved around to several different houses when I was a kid, and I was able to locate where most of them had stood, but now they are just bare patches of earth, having been scraped down to the dirt by the clean-up crews. And not just bare patches of earth. Really small, humble, unimpressive patches of earth. A typical house doesn’t actually take up all that much space. You can walk across its footprint in a few strides when there are no walls in the way. It makes it hard to imagine that entire lives were lived there, people learning and growing and loving and struggling together. Standing there, surveying the damage, I found myself thinking “This is it? This is what I remember so fondly?”
But that’s the way life is. We all start out small, with humble roots. Children don’t need much, and even with very little they experience the world as a wonderful place. On those hillsides I spent entire days chasing lizards and catching them in glass jars. On those floors I crawled along on my back so I could look up from the bottom of the Christmas tree and create imaginary worlds among the twinkling lights. On those streets I braved the big scary world all on my own when I rode my bike to school. The foundation for the man I am today was laid inside the humble footprint of that simple little town that no longer exists.
A spiritual foundation was laid too. We went to church in that town. Not the world’s greatest church, just a church where the Bible was taught faithfully and the people loved Jesus. A church where God’s people understood that children matter. We had Sunday school classes where we learned about Noah and Abraham and Moses and David through coloring pages and flannelgraphs. We sang carols at Christmas and dressed up for Easter. We memorized the books of the Bible with the help of silly songs, and learned what worship was by watching the adults sing God’s praises.
And then, of course, every summer we had Vacation Bible School. My clearest memories of VBS are actually from attending one at another church in town. I remember how nervous I was to go into a strange building and be taught by unfamiliar grown-ups. I remember well-meaning old church ladies insisting that I eat the snack, which was Jell-O, one of my least favorite foods. Nonsense, they said, All children love Jell-O. But more than all of that I remember being surrounded by adults who were willing to make children a priority, who wanted so badly for us to know the love of God and the story of Jesus that they gave up a week of their summer, and spent hours tolerating our excess energy in the heat of an ancient building with no air conditioning. I remember that their faithful service was the tool God used to teach me about Himself, that He is real, and loves me, and is at work in the world and in my life.
Those people are gone now, along with that building and most of the town. But time and fire can’t erase the spiritual benefit of their investment in me. It is permanent, a part of me and every life I now have the privilege of ministering to, including my own children. This week, I have the joy of being the adult, the servant, and watching them sing the songs and play the games and learn the stories, creating memories they will never forget and growing closer to the God who will never leave them or forsake them. I watch their joy and their curiosity, and I pray that God will make me more like them, so I can grow closer to Him too. And I pray that God’s love and His truth would find a permanent place in their hearts, shaping them for years to come, that someday they might have the privilege of telling the next generation how precious they are to the One who made them.