The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, was an unusual man by all accounts – and one of his unusual and rather engaging qualities was the wonderful affinity that he is said to have had with young children.
When hosting visiting dignitaries and their families at Lambeth Palace, he would often vanish from the midst of the worthies he was supposed to be entertaining, much to the consternation of his staff – only to be discovered in a neighbouring room, sitting on the floor surrounded by the visiting children, whose company he clearly much preferred. Despite being childless himself, he was one of those adults who do not merely tolerate children – they actively delight in them. Indeed, he was himself occasionally described as almost childlike in the simplicity and straightforwardness with which he engaged with others. And children, of course, know perfectly well when an adult is taking them seriously and really listening to them – as opposed to one who is merely pretending to take an interest.
And children themselves – particularly young children – can possess a whole range of qualities that adults often lack. For example, as the parents amongst you will doubtless recognise to your cost, children have a disarming capacity to speak the truth about people and situations, untrammelled by any sense of what one does and does not say aloud in public. One of the most embarrassing moments of my life occurred many years ago when we had employed a local electrician to fix a faulty light fitting in our dining room. It was apparent as soon as he arrived that he was not one of the most fragrant of individuals. And one of my daughters, still just a toddler, wandered into the room in which he was working, and said to me in her best, clearest and most penetrating voice: ‘What a horrible smell. I think it’s him!’ (Try getting out of that one!)
For precisely that reason, there are occasions when we can end up regarding children as something of a liability, feeling the need to keep them quiet or out of the way – and telling them off for doing the very thing that normally we actively insist that they do – namely, speaking the truth. But it is worth recognizing that there is a purity about their honesty and straightforwardness that we adults so often lack.
There is also a wonderful immediacy about young children: they live utterly for, and in, the present moment. This can have its drawbacks of course – but seen positively, the natural capacity that children have to do this is something that adults often lose completely – because we can become so obsessed with our future aspirations – or so fixated on our fears of what the future might hold – that the gift of the present moment passes us by completely. I don’t very often find myself quoting John Lennon, but I do think he was absolutely right when he wrote: ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.’
And the other thing about young children is that they can have a much greater and more immediate sense of the presence of God than we do. Which is why I never underestimate or dismiss the spiritual experience of children. We are wrong to assume that for the experience of Church to be relevant to children, it has to be packaged as entertainment. Children are not only capable of more than that – they are also worth more than that.
Some years ago a Free Church minister of my acquaintance told me the following story. He was accustomed to having a long period of prayer and silence in the early morning each day, which he treasured and safeguarded as his personal time with God. And one morning when he had family visiting, he was deep in his devotions in front of a lighted candle in his study, when he heard the door behind him open, and with a sinking heart realized that his little grandson had wandered in to see what he was up to – which would doubtless spell the end of his precious time of absolute quiet. But in fact, the little boy came and sat down next him, without a word, and the two of them sat together quietly for really quite a long time. Eventually the little boy leaned over and whispered to him: ‘Grandad. Why do you light candles when you say your prayers? Is it to keep God warm?’ At which point my friend realized that his prayers that morning were actually proving much the richer with the little boy there.
As some of you will have heard me recount before, my own personal spiritual journey began on a family holiday in Devon when I was six. I was taken on a visit to Buckfast Abbey, and my six-year-old soul was just blown away by the place – I was profoundly affected by an astonishing sense of the presence of God in that holy place over many centuries. It changed the course of my life. Never underestimate the spirituality of children.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus, having discovered that the disciples were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest, responds by placing a little child in their midst and saying, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’
There is, of course, all the difference in the world between a faith that is childlike, and a faith that is childish. And sadly there many kinds of religion that contrive to keep people as spiritual and moral infants: telling them what they have to think; denying them the scope to grow, and to explore, and to ask difficult questions – and in the process also denying them the means to attain that true fullness of life and fullness of relationship with God that is theirs by right. Treat human beings as infants, and they will never grow up.
Conversely, we would do well to try and recapture all that is most good and positive and life-giving about being childlike – which is, I believe, what Jesus was talking about. By which I mean some of those things to which I was referring earlier: a simple directness and lack of duplicity in our dealings with others (albeit tempered by a more adult grasp of kindness and gentleness); that sense of the gift of the present moment which we so often fail to treasure as a pearl of great price; that easy and natural sense of the presence of God in the most surprising of places. A sense of wonder in the astonishing gifts of Creation; and a remarkable capacity to trust, and to be open to people and experiences. And it is with that theme of childlike openness that I shall close, quoting some words by the man about whom I began speaking this morning, Archbishop Michael Ramsey. Writing on the subject of Holy Communion, that wonderful holy, compassionate, and childlike man said this:
Nowhere more vividly than in the sacrament of the Eucharist do Christians find through Christ an openness to the past and to the present, to heaven and to the world. Through this openness the Christian is equipped to face the tasks of the present with realism, and to face the future with hope.
And thanks be to God for that.