Aren’t children wonderful! There is something gloriously and disarmingly straightforward about the way in which children – especially very young children – both see and interpret the world around them, which can be as illuminating as it is startling, and which (as some of us know to our cost!), can be particularly alarming when visitors are present.
A famous Oxford professor, notorious for his radical theological views, once had occasion to call at the house of a college chaplain whose religious opinions differed significantly from his own. The front door was opened to him by the chaplain’s yong daughter. On being asked by the esteemed professor whether her father was at home, the young girl shouted over her shoulder, in full hearing of everyone within the vicinity: ‘Daddy, it’s that silly man!’
A child will often give voice to the thoughts that adults (in fact) fully share with them, but which a grownup would never dream of expressing aloud. Children are completely unafraid to tell it ‘how it is’. The reason being that children carry far less ‘baggage’ than all of us when engaging with reality. They are, as yet, untrammelled by adult conventions about politeness, and the unspoken assumptions that dictate what you do and do not say out loud. In the same way, it is only over time that time that a child learns how to be overtly deceitful. And sometimes there are situations in which only a child can see the obvious as well as state the obvious. This is, of course, the whole point of the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes: it takes a child to state what everyone else is thinking but is too afraid to point out, for fear of looking foolish: that the Emperor really is wearing nothing at all – he is indeed as naked as the day he was born.
That is why we do well to take children seriously; because sometimes we can learn important things from her. We do not always know more than they do, or know better than they do, however much we tend to assume that we do.
And sometimes it is we who are in the wrong. I still feel mortified about an incident that happened when my younger daughter was still very small, and we were on holiday in Cornwall. She made a terrible fuss when she was put into her car seat, complaining that she had been bitten ‘by an ant.’ In typical adult fashion, I was very robust with her, and told her off for making such a ridiculous fuss.
It was only when we arrived at our destination that I discovered that there had been a wasp in the bottom of her car seat, which had stung her quite badly, and she really had been in a considerable amount of pain. And all these years later, I still feel dreadful about that incident. We do well to listen to children and to take them seriously. Sometimes they have a better idea than we do of what is really going on.
And the same is also true, interestingly enough, in relation to the things of God. most of us tend to think of religious belief as something that is really for grown-ups. Yes, we are happy enough to introduce children to a faith tradition at a young age, and to baptise babies – but far too many churches seem to behave as if children were an irritation to be tolerated – or simply the raw material that we need to hold on to long enough to turn them into adult believers when they are capable of grasping a ‘proper’ faith.
Whereas Jesus taught us that the precise opposite of that is true. Indeed, he tells us that it is only when we learn to become ‘as little children’ that we can enter the kingdom of heaven at all. It is only when we learn to see the world, and to experience God a bit more like they do, that we get closer to the truth.
And one of the most striking examples of those lessons is encompassed in our New Testament lesson this evening – the famous teaching of Jesus about the ‘lilies of the fields’ and to ‘take no thought for the morrow.’ Because children naturally live in the present, so do not need to be taught the need to do so. But that is a gift that we adults have often completely lost.
I am not, on the whole, a huge fan of Wordsworth’s poetry – I’m afraid that all those daffodils generally don’t really do it for me – but I do remain very haunted by some lines from his poem, ‘Intimations of Immortality’, in which he reverses all our normal assumptions about the relationship between growing up, and our relative closeness to God. In short, instead of religious awareness being primarily an adult thing, the opposite is the case, Wordsworth tells us: for, when we are born, we come from God ‘trailing clouds of glory’. It is in fact through the process of birth and growing up that we begin to lose all of that:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star
hath elsewhere its setting and cometh from afar;
not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness,
but trailing clouds of Glory do we come
from God, who is our home.
Heaven lies about us in our infancy.
So, if that is the case, the challenge for us as adults, is how to rediscover that sense of glory, to which Wordsworth refers; that awareness of the God who is truly our home, which comes much more naturally to children. We must learn to suspend our disbelief and open our hearts, and our minds, and our ears, and our eyes, to hear God’s call to us; to feel his love for us – and to learn to live in the present. To set aside our fears for what tomorrow might bring – for ‘sufficient unto the day, is the evil thereof.’