Fifteen years ago I was working as a chaplain at St. Vincent Hospital and I was on call one weekend when I was paged by a nurse in the emergency room. They had just had a death—a woman in cardiac arrest—and her son, a cognitively challenged adult who functioned at about the level of a 10 year old, had understandably erupted in anger, shouting and pushing things over and threatening the staff when anyone got too close. He just didn’t have the capacity in that moment to deal with such a huge and shocking heartbreak. Someone thankfully had thought to call the chaplain before they called the police. They assured me security would be standing by, just out of sight so as not to upset the distraught son even more.
I prayed all the way there and walked into the ER, not knowing what I would find. The man, whose name was George, was in a consultation room all by himself, where he’d been since they called me. I stepped quietly into the room and walked to a chair opposite him and sat down. He continued staring at the floor. He was very tight, looked rigid, trying to hold it all together. “I’m so sorry about your mom,” I said. Instantly I felt the weight of the sorrow in the room. I also felt a wave of tender love—God’s love–for this big man with a boy’s heart who’d just lost his mom and had been so threatening to my coworkers only moments before.
When he finally spoke, it was with anger at first. It just spilled out. This shouldn’t have happened, he said. His mom had been okay. It wasn’t right. And then he seemed to soften a little and the fear came out: He didn’t know what to do now.
I told him I didn’t know what to do either, but we would figure it out. “We could start with a prayer,” I said, and asked, “Would that be okay?”
“I don’t know how to pray,” George said. “The only prayer I know is, ‘Help me, God!’”
“That’s the absolutely best prayer,” I told him. “God always hears and answers that prayer.”
Over the next 90 minutes or so, George continued to soften as we talked some more. I learned how at a loss he truly was. His mom was his caregiver and had done everything for him. He didn’t have any idea where to begin caring for himself, and thank goodness for the emergency room social worker, who knew what to do and who to call to get some resources and support for him. After a half hour or so, his girlfriend arrived. She was also cognitively challenged but it was obvious he felt better with her there. When everything was done and it was time to go, George wanted to go see all the nurses he had scared so badly earlier that afternoon. He apologized to each of them and they were all gracious and understanding. One stepped forward and hugged him. On such an afternoon of crisis and human brokenness, God’s peace and healing, grief and kindness swirled around us all.
I’ve cherished that memory and remembered George all these years because of the sweetness of his spirit, the innocence at his core, and the honest and understandable anger and upset that bubbled over in moments of heartbreak and overwhelm. Don’t we all do the same thing? I saw how quickly it helped when his anger was met with understanding instead of control. And I realized how little it truly takes—“Help me, God!”—to bring God right into the middle of our need, right now, whatever it might be. And that invitation, offered in any way that makes sense to us, literally changes everything.
In the New Living Testament version of Psalm 37: 6-8, the psalmist says,
“He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn, and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun. Be still in the presence of the Lord and wait patiently for him to act. Don’t worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes. Stop being angry! Turn from your rage! Do not lose your temper…it only leads to harm.”
Our innocence—the sweetness of that of God in each of us—is always present within us, but we aren’t always aware of or operating from that spiritual source of light and truth and peace. In our current climate of cynicism and distrust, we are all wounded and grieving, adjusting and overwhelmed with worries and concerns about what the future will bring. It may be a huge challenge for us to find and stay in touch with that hopeful, quiet voice in the center of our souls. The psalmist tells us, “be still in the presence of the Lord and wait patiently for him to act.” Don’t fret, don’t stew, don’t rage or lose your temper. That only leads to harm, David wrote nearly three thousand years ago. It’s still, miraculously, a perfect counsel for today.
The innocence that is present within us is a quiet shine that we can easily lose touch with when we’re feeling angry and upset. We saw that in George’s case. At first, overwhelmed with emotion, over six feet tall and probably close to 300 pounds, he was a fearsome figure and the nurses trying to help him felt threatened. Thank goodness they called someone to care for his spirit before they called the authorities to control his behavior. After he found a way to put his heartbreak and confusion into words, George’s anger began to dissolve and his sweetness was able to appear. That made it possible for the kind people around him to find ways to help.
In our New Testament reading today, Jesus begins by telling the parable of the two men going to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee who was quite full of himself. He was devout and educated, he fasted regularly, and he thanked God he was a more faithful man than the tax collector who had come into the temple at the same time. The tax collector, on the other hand, didn’t have an inflated view of his simple faith. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” he cried. Jesus told the crowd—which no doubt included Pharisees and tax collectors, as well as merchants and townsfolk—that the tax collector chose the better way, “for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
And it’s no accident that the story of the little children comes next in this passage. Right after Jesus finished telling this parable, the disciples noticed that people were trying to bring their children forward to receive a blessing from Jesus. When Jesus saw they were trying instead to send the families away, he stopped them and said, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
The idea here is innocence, honesty, guilelessness. Rather than playing a role, inflating their own importance, concerned about the image they are portraying to the world, children have a purer, more immediate relation to experience. Full of energy and spontaneity and laughter, children are better at living in the moment than we are, more open to playfulness, more awake to the joy of movement, the preciousness of friendship, the natural joy of giving, the delight of creative expression.
In his book, Manifesting God, Father Thomas Keating writes about our innocence as a mirror of the innocent love at the heart of God. It’s a beautiful passage:
“God is innocence itself. Like a happy child, God seems to have no particular agenda, just sheer goodness manifesting itself. God is eternally childlike and playful, accepting everything just as it is. God is always in the present moment with whatever may be its contents: always responding to everything and everyone; yet always free, peaceful, and at rest. God delights in everything that exists, adjusting to every creature (personal with creatures that are persons, impersonal with creatures that are impersonal) and eager to bestow eternal life and happiness on every human being.”
What a lovely thought, that the innocence that is still there at the center of our faith is a mirror of God’s own pure and innocent love for us. How might we care for ourselves—especially now–so our anger and fear can dissipate and we can find once again—and protect and live with–the gifts of God’s presence and peace, freedom and joy. We too could discover that childlike energy in ourselves that delights, like God, in everything that exists. You heard Jesus—he said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom belongs to such as these.”
Yesterday afternoon I took a break from writing this message and Gloria and I went for a walk in our favorite place. “Come on, Gloria,” I said to her, “Let’s go find the joy of the Lord.” We went with the idea in mind to welcome with joyful innocence whatever we found. And guess what? First the joy of the Lord showed up as a lovely refreshing breeze, and then as a soccer ball that was left on the playground (that’s Gloria’s favorite). Then we were accompanied by doves flying overhead, by the songs of birds far away, by the full blossoms of happy daisies, and finally, by splashing through puddles from the rain earlier in the afternoon (another of Gloria’s favorite things). So much joy—sheer goodness–in a 30-minute walk.
The delight, the discovery, the refreshing of our faith is part of the innocence we share with God. “Like a happy child,” Father Keating says, “God seems to have no particular agenda, just sheer goodness manifesting itself.” This isn’t a Pharisee feeling proud and thankful that he’s got it all figured out and looks so good doing it. This is the honest heartbreak of George praying “Help me!” and the humble confession of the tax collector asking for mercy. And a child, open to enjoying life, finding surprising blessings, and delighting in all the fellow creatures she meets along the way.
I encourage you this week to make that sweet and vital journey back to the innocence at the heart of your relationship with God. Yes, being an adult means we sometimes put away childish things, as Paul wrote. But God wants us to know his perfect peace and joy and to delight in his presence and creation. The door to that kingdom requires the innocence of a child.
In closing, I’d like to share a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver that sums up the gift and reverence of an innocent faith:
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say,
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
- OT Psalm 37: 6-8
- NT Luke 18: 9-16
- Keating, Thomas. Manifesting God. https://books.google.com/books?id=PtYg6SFTp-kC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Oliver, Mary. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver