May 08

If not for this child, than who?

I can tell I have settled into the role of Chaplain here at Intermountain when the following diagnoses no longer startle me:

  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Reactive Attachment Disorder of early childhood or infancy
  • Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder-Combined Type
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent
  • Neglect of Child
  • Sexual Abuse of Child
  • Asperger’s
  • Mood Disorder
  • Problem with Primary Support Group
  • Problems Related to the Social Environment
  • Bipolar
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • Borderline Intellectual Functioning

Quite a list, isn’t it? But, behind each of these labels is a child. Just as each of us would not desire to be known as any of the labels that apply to us and our “problems,” these children deserve to be known for something other than their present difficulties or their troubled past.

A favorite image of mine from childhood is that of the children gathered around Jesus that was in the children’s Bible I received at my baptism in 1980. There is something very tender about the way Jesus cradles the face of the little girl in his hands as well as the nearness of the other children to the Savior. There is, however, something amiss in this picture… at least for me.

In the picture everyone looks so clean… not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well. Certainly, Jesus would have no problem interacting with these children—they are so well behaved and attentive! Perhaps this is the scene you envision when you read from Luke’s gospel the following:

“People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’” (Luke 18:15-17, NIV)

There must have been some reason for the disciple’s rebuke beyond a miscalculation of their leader’s care for children! They had been with Jesus long enough to know that he often spent time and lavished attention on those who others overlooked. Could it be that the children coming to Jesus were not in their “Sunday best,” perhaps a little disheveled and poorly behaved? Could you envision them pushing their way through to see Jesus, as eager to wrestle with him as they were to sit attentively and soak in his wisdom?

You see, in nearly two decades of working with and speaking to children, I have yet to replicate this scene of Jesus with the children. I consider myself a pretty effective communicator with little ones, and still they squirm, would rather talk about their pet dog than the Bible lesson, pick their nose, lift up their pretty dresses… and all manner of things to embarrass their parents sitting in the pews. Beyond just this, the children I have worked with rarely came as “clean” as these children in the picture appeared to me growing up. The children I have worked with in various church settings, and work with now at Intermountain, may have been children on the outside, but had dealt with some very “big person”-type problems. Depression, ADHD, reactive-attachment disorder, mistrust… all these not uncommon.

I wonder if our attitude towards these big problems in these little people is not dissimilar to that of the disciples in the gospel account? Maybe we don’t verbally rebuke these children, but what in our attitudes, expectations and ministry structure make it clear that ALL children may find a place on Jesus’ lap? Does the kingdom of God belong only to the well-behaved, easy to manage child? What does it say of our understanding of God’s kingdom if we’d rather work with the well-groomed, well-adjusted, well-behaved child than those that have been hurt by the world and sin and are struggling to overcome it?

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them…” Jesus said.

But what of their hurt, their anger, their aggression, their sadness? It’s all so… messy. Not to mention, difficult.

“The kingdom of God belongs to such as these…” Jesus said.

Indeed. If not this child—any of the children I work with each day at Intermountain, and those children hurting and in the shadows of your own community—if not these children, than who among us may come?