This simple, precious, and profound song was part of my assurance of connection with celestial reality in my early days of living. Having receded into my consciousness over the many years since childhood, its silent presence was invoked one day while I was teaching in the Oakland school system. A group of students, primarily Asian American, left a music session singing this song so expressively that its memory was recalled to the forefront of my consciousness and heart. Their singing had gone beyond the classroom, spilled into the hallway, and reached the hunger of my soul, a hunger unrecognized until I heard the children singing. Their spirits were contagious. Their gentle grace evoked prayer and calm within my own. I don’t know if that was the first time they had heard the song. Deep within I knew it was one that struck a vital chord with them and would melodically carry them through their days to come.
At that hour the disciples came and asked Jesus, “Who is greatest in the Realm of heaven?” So, he called a child and set it among them, and said, “I tell you truly, unless you turn and become like children, you will never get into the Realm of heaven at all. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the Realm of heaven; . . .
It is of interest to me that these students – which is what is meant by the word disciples, those that are tutored by Jesus – with whom he had spent so much time still had very little understanding of his concept of the Realm of heaven. He had spent much time with them, trying to channel the essence of this new reality, the Realm, the kin-dom of God to their entrapped minds. While mesmerized by him as evidenced by their leaving their homes – what would have provided some form of security – to follow him, much impaired their ability to understand kernel ideas. This is understandable because Jesus was dropping ideas on them that undercut all that they had been taught and lived.
And this is important for us to understand! Jesus’ message was a radical indictment of what existed, of the structures, institutions, tradition. The question who is or would be greatest in this new reality is logical in the traditional way of thinking about life and the hierarchy of human beings. Jesus needs them to think out of the box, for that is the only way the Realm will be manifested, lived. Therefore, he does not initially answer the question horizontally, or laterally; but puts the question in a larger, more comprehensive, wholistic context. A brilliant teacher, he calls a child who is clearly in the vicinity. He does not have to send someone over to someone else’s house for a child. The child is present already. This is an important observation for we often think that children should be separated from adult company and understanding. They should be seen but not participate in adult musings. Maybe, Jesus was reminded of the time when as a child he became so engaged with religious leaders in the temple that he ignored the departing of his parents toward home. When they returned seeking him, they appeared perturbed. He wondered why they were so perplexed saying they should have known he was in good hands exploring his calling, how his life was to embody the life of the creator God, the parent (father), the one who sired him.
Jesus sets a child in their midst and proclaims that unless you (disciples) turn and become like children, unless you move in another direction, another understanding, rotate in an altered ecological reality, you will never get into the Realm of heaven at all. You can never be part of the future, which the Realm of heaven symbolizes and makes incarnate. You will be entombed in the deadening past and present. What an indictment, judgment, and sentence this is – forever barred from life!
What is so special about children that we adults who certainly have experienced life for a longer length of time and should, therefore, be much wiser that we must make an about-face and become like them? Aren’t we the ones who out of our fullness teach and mold children in the ways they should go? What then do they have going that we should play second fiddle to them in the great symphony of life? Don’t we as adults have the responsibility to groom children into becoming responsible adults. They are supposed to become like us, the best of us, not the other way around that we should become like them.
But Jesus says: Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the Realm of heaven. Does Jesus mean innocence when he talks about humility? No! We cannot return to innocence if we ever were innocent. It is not about having little self-esteem. It is not about feeling beneath everyone else.
Why the question who is the greatest? Was it ego? Was it out of respect for Jesus, for wanting to be acknowledged by the one they cherished so much? I think humility has to do with not being arrogant about oneself, one’s life, not trying to control it, but leaning into it, trusting it, exploring it, not manipulating it, not bottling it up, not containing it. AAA insurance has a commercial that speaks about outsmarting life. You cannot outsmart life. You shouldn’t even try. How can you outsmart God, the universe, the infinite? How can any temporal entity outsmart the Eternal?
Humility is about understanding our place in the universe, that we are not the masters of the world. For Jesus in this case humility means accepting and readily engaging in a larger context of living in which we are both actor and subject. It means having the grace to participate not with arrogance or pride, not with feelings of superiority and completeness, but with an understanding of being an explorer, a seeker of life, resting in the joy of living.
Children live in the abundance of life rather than the limitations imposed by adult compromises with life. Our children are not things says Dr. Howard Thurman. He wrote about this connection with the larger context:
Nightfall was meaningful to my childhood, for the night was more than a companion. It was a presence, an articulate climate. There was something about the night that seemed to cover my spirit like a gentle blanket. …The night had its own language. Sometimes, the night seemed to have movement in it, as if it were a great ocean wave. Other times, it was deathly still, no rhythm, no movement. As such times I could hear the night think and feel the nightfall. This comforted me and I found myself wishing that night would hurry and come, for under its cover, my mind would roam. I felt embraced, enveloped, held secure. In some fantastic way, the night belonged to me.
The Realm for Thurman unfolds intimacy with the inexplicable but real, intimacy with the phenomena rather than the rationalization of the phenomena. The rational “rations” the experience, incapable of conveying its fullness or impact. It cannot take in the whole – the Realm of heaven. Therefore, in the words of Thurman, it must be reduced to manageable units for our minds to make sense of the actual experience. Consequently, you have a concept such as personal greatness which connotes a very limited notion rather than the expansive reality of universal or cosmic interplay. The concept of one being the greatest in the Realm of God is contradictory to the Realm. For, it would mean that someone(s) would have to be the least. It would set up hierarchy. It would encourage belittling the least of these. Narcissism is its end.
Children may not be theologians, that is not necessarily their way. But what is more important is that they live into experiences with the phenomena that grace their lives, open their imaginations, and become companion for their future days. This is a gift that keeps on giving.
Thurman’s experience hints at what Jesus meant by becoming a child. Not all experiences of childhood are articulated as profoundly as Dr. Thurman shares them. Yet, we might remember ourselves observing a younger sibling playing house. The sibling pours imaginary tea into a teacup and serves it to the guest(s) whether real or imaginary. And, they have a great time enjoying each other’s company, their play time. The child can create an imaginary existence, life, reality and live within it while living in the present or “real” world. The child creates a totally different Realm of living, based upon values and dreams of the child, and lives in that Realm while knowing that it is not the present world, yet a world of joy, acceptance, a world that is natural.
The Realm of heaven requires a paradigm shift that the disciples had not made. This necessitates seeing and perceiving a world that is fundamentally different from the one in which we are currently enmeshed.
This is what Jesus had been trying to convey in his radical ministry. The Realm of heaven cannot be contained in the present structures. In our time Dr. King said with great clarity that the Beloved Community cannot be achieved through our present system of capitalism and that we must not deceive ourselves into thinking that this system will self-correct. It will not!
Jesus must have been disappointed with his students. They still had not quite gotten the point of his life and message. Did they not recall The Beatitudes? “Blessed are those who feel poor in spirit! The Realm of heaven is theirs. Blessed are the humble! They will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of goodness! The Realm of heaven is theirs.” Did they not understand the flip side of “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is God’s?” Give to the state, the nation only what belongs to the state and to give to God what is God’s. In other words, don’t give to the state what belongs to God, your loyalty, your trust, your life, and its fullness. “Nor do people pour fresh wine into old wineskins.” Did they not understand that Jesus was talking about a new way of being in the world – a “new being” in the world, a “new” world, Realm, kin-dom that could not thrive in the old structures and systems.
Jesus realized that his students had not grasped his message. They had heard it on many occasions; yet it did not rule their consciousness. With this visualization, he compels them to mull over the query, knowing that there is something beneath the question, some underlying notion. The idea had to be enfleshed. Looking at the child, they could understand more clearly that Jesus was focused on the future, creating a future for those he challenged to live into that future.
Jesus was upsetting the most sacredly held values of the society. The Realm of heaven is a revolutionary community. He understood the hounds of hell as Thurman describes them, fear, deception, hatred, and knew that their reign had to be overthrown, that new loyalty had to claim our allegiance. He was not about progress within debilitating current structures, laws, mores, politics, economic, religion, culture. He had no commitment to them. His focus was on opening his disciples and others to a possible future. That future had to include The More Than, the All-Pervading Presence as Thurman names it. It is a future of creativity and, therefore, freedom – a freedom that comes from leaning into that which is the foundation of our living, the source and goal of our existence. It is about trusting the unseen yet real.
He is declaring that we cannot build an “ideal tomorrow” on the false security of yesterday and today. He is opening his disciples to bringing the future into the present. He is declaring that security is not in tradition but in trusting that which is beyond tradition, the cosmic energy and impulse, the pregnant possibilities of the impossible.
Dr. Thurman relates a story of experiencing the Eternal in the present holding him in its embrace:
When the storms blew, the branches of the large oak tree in our backyard would snap and fall. But the topmost branches of the oak tree would sway, giving way just enough to save themselves from snapping loose. I needed the strength of that tree, and, like it, I wanted to hold my ground. Eventually, I discovered that the oak tree and I had a unique relationship. I could sit, my back against the trunk, and feel the same peace that would come to me in my bed at night. I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them and talk about them.
When Jesus says that we must become like children he is not celebrating innocence, helplessness, or limited experience with life. When the child creates her/his reality, s/he exemplifies creativity, something new from what existed. The child finds freedom. We find our freedom through creativity. It is not that simple, however. We do have to contend with enormous, well-heeled ensnaring institutions, systems, traditions that discourage transcending our common life for a managed, controlled one.
Also recorded in chapter 18 of the Gospel of Matthew are the words: But whoever is a hindrance to one of these little ones who believe in me, better for him to have a great mill-stone hung round his neck and be sunk in the deep sea. Unless we are working against situations that deprive children of the opportunity to be children, to dream, create, live lives as children, lives of play, lives without starvation and abuse, lives without having to run for shelter from bombing, lives where they are uplifted as the exemplars of the future, we ourselves need to be extinguished.
Rev. James Lawson included in his powerful tribute to the late Congressman John Lewis: We do not need bipartisan politics if we’re going to celebrate the life of John Lewis. We need the Constitution to come alive! We hold these truths to be self-evident: We need the Congress and the president to work unfalteringly on behalf of every boy and every girl, so that every baby born on these shores will have access to the tree of life. That’s the only way to honor John Robert Lewis. No other way.
Thurman extends his conversation about the oak tree I could talk aloud to the oak tree and know that I was understood. It too was a part of my reality, like the woods, the night, and the pounding surf, my earliest companions, giving me space. What Thurman does not say but is clear to me is that the oak tree talked back to him. It spoke not in English nor any other human language, but in tree language, universal language, cosmic utterance. It said to the boy: I’ve got your back.
All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new lives, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of a child — life’s most dramatic answer to death — this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge! — Howard Thurman