My favorite Far Side cartoon—which I found probably 15 or 20 years ago—shows a young boy sitting at a table, with feathers in the air all around him and soot on his face, like there was an explosion, the result of an obvious science experiment gone wrong. The caption says, “God as a kid tries to make a chicken in his room.”
I love that cartoon on so many levels. First, because the image itself is funny—I’ll post it with this message online so you can see. But the idea that God had to try and try and try to come up with something as basic—and as complex—as a chicken just brings a laugh. It makes God seem more human, doesn’t it? We know firsthand in our everyday lives how things rarely go the way they are supposed to for the first time and learning to do anything—walk, read, drive a car—takes concentration and effort.
Learning new things also requires a whole lot of faith—faith that things will eventually go right, faith that more than we know is happening, and working out for our good, faith that God is present and helping, like he promised—even when we can’t see evidence of it with our eyes at the moment. We need faith to keep getting up each time we fall, cleaning up the feathers and starting again, somehow finding the courage to try again and again and again.
Over the last month we’ve been following the story of the birth of Jesus, celebrating his arrival in the stable, worshiping with the three kings as they came for a visit. The gospel of Luke tells us that when the baby was eight days old, he was formally given the name Jesus, the name the angel Gabriel had given to Mary long before. Mary and Joseph then went and presented Jesus at the temple, which was the tradition in that day. No doubt they weren’t expecting anything extraordinary, but God has spoken to two devout people of faith—elderly Simeon and the prophet Anna—who said amazing things about the child and confirmed that he would be a light of revelation and a glory to God. Mary and Joseph were amazed by what they heard, but after this high moment, the stories about Jesus’ early years go quiet. Luke 2: 40 says, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
But I guess curious about what Jesus—the human divine toddler Jesus—must have been like as he was learning and growing. Child development specialists tell us that each human baby—the whole world over—goes through a similar process of development as they learn to make sense of the world around them. Jean Paiget was a developmental psychologist who studied the way babies and children think and discern and understand. He developed a model of child development explained how children think at different ages, what they understand about their environment, and how they determine what is real.
The first stage is the sensorimotor stage, ranging from birth through roughly age two. During this stage, every baby learns an astounding number of things as they begin to become aware of the world around them. At first, they know only what is right in front of them—and at first even that isn’t very clear. Babies respond to faces and voices they recognize—like mom and dad–and then colors, other sounds and movement.
As they grow, babies are continually experimenting, putting things in their mouths, reaching for something interesting or shiny, wiggling everything they can and trying out their tiny, sweet voices. They put lots of things in their mouths—you may remember that stage from when your own kids were little. Soon they begin to smile and coo and giggle, delighting the adults around them. Gradually they learn to communicate with those who love them and they begin to affect their environment—moving this block over here and that toy over there. They discover they have power to do things. Their world expands at a quick pace after that—they learn how to roll over, sit up without falling over; they try new foods, their coos change into syllables that are almost recognizable—Ma-ma-ma and Da-da-da.
Between the age of seven and nine months, babies learn an important concept that they will use all their lives: it’s called object permanence. It’s what makes a game of peek-a-boo so fun. When a baby realizes that the cup is still there even when mom hides it under a napkin, that is an entirely new level of cognitive understanding. That is a spark of wisdom. And a sign of memory.
Think about how important that idea of object permanence is in our lives of faith. We can’t see God, but we know God, here. We count on that ocean of light George Fox saw even though we are still praying it in. We learn more and more as our faith deepens throughout our lives that there is much, much more to this world than what is seen. In fact, appearances can be and often are deceiving. As the main character in the book The Little Prince said, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” I like the idea that object permanence leaves the door of possibility unlatched so Christ can enter at just the right time, at our invitation.
Divinely human and humanly divine, it’s likely that Jesus went through all the normal stages of child development as he learned and grew, at home with his parents in Nazareth. His thoughts, his movements, his ability to communicate with others would have unfolded gradually, as it does with babies the whole world over. Jesus’ humanity is a vitally important grounding point for his divinity. He came to be fully one with us—and with all the human challenges we face—without ever losing his Oneness with God. He was miraculously able to navigate this world that seems so far from God without ever being separate from God himself. Embodying that dual reality enabled him to bring heaven to earth and show us—day by day, through practical, lived out parables—how we could do it too.
Our New Testament story today is taken from a day in Jesus’ adult life, when the disciples ask him who will be the greatest in heaven. He calls a child over and then says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
Jesus understood, like the developmental psychologist Jean Paiget, that as children grow toward adulthood, their thinking matures and the way they view the world changes. During the second stage of development, called the preoperational stage, which stretches from the toddler years through age seven, kids learn to think about things symbolically and creatively. Their imaginations work over-time—this is prime time for make-believe. But this isn’t because children are fanciful and unrealistic—which is how adults often categorize the sweet, playful, anything-is-possible thinking of young children. Paiget found that for children 2 to 7, their thinking is based on intuition—the voice of the heart—and they don’t yet think in terms of cause and effect or make comparisons between people, places, and events. That means they haven’t yet developed the tendency to judge others and create in groups and out groups; everyone is welcome, everyone is included—what’s important is love and play and fun.
After the age of 7, logic and concrete reasoning begins. Children don’t rely on imagination as much and develop their rational thought to analyze concepts, form comparisons and judgments, and build their storehouse of experiential and learned knowledge. Their language expands; they open to a whole world of information and are drawn more fully into the events of the outer world. This is the normal way of things and the upside is that all these amazing developments help young people blossom as talented, contributing adults with, we hope, happy and flourishing lives. But the sad part and the challenge–if connection to God is important—is that as kids move toward adulthood, their growing rational minds can crowd out something of the magic, the hope, the whimsy, the playful imagination. Innocence and humility can be left behind on the quest to a successful life. Sooner or later—for some people, much later—life will give us the opportunity to find those things again. But Jesus says they’re worth keeping all along.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said. The child beside Jesus that day knew exactly what he meant. They both understood what’s real, what matters, and what’s lasting. Both had hearts that knew God as companion, as Father, as playmate. Both trusted their intuition and creativity—one in play and the other in teaching and healing. All these disciples and Pharisees and Sadducees around them, worrying about who was best and who was richest and who had the most power and status—they were all missing the point, trying to look good. All those rational, success-driven thinkers were looking right past the most important thing: in every moment, they had the choice to discover the kingdom of God within them and to share it with others, transforming the battleground of life into the playground it was meant to be.
Our Old Testament reading today from Nehemiah is a story of how people turned back toward God after generations of forgetfulness. The story unfolds about 450 years before the birth of Jesus. The city of Jerusalem was in ruins; the once glorious temple of King David and Solomon had been rebuilt but the workmanship was shoddy; the gates and walls of the city were in disrepair. The population had dwindled to only a few thousand, and the mighty people of Israel—once proud and devout—were now “in great trouble and shame.” They were so far from their heritage that even their Hebrew language—important for the reading of the law and the prophets–was in danger of extinction because people had taken on the languages of surrounding nations.
Into this dismal time, a good man named Nehemiah, who was a cupbearer for the king, prayed that God might act with favor toward the children of Israel and restore their identity as people of God. Throughout the book, we see how God responds to the prayer of this hopeful and simple man, how the rebuilding begins, people begin to return to the city, evil plans are thwarted, and how—at just the right moment, when the city and the people were ready, the prophet Ezra summons them all—and all in their households–to come hear the word of God. Ezra reads the law from the book of Moses in front of the whole assembly—some 42,300 people—from early morning until midday. The people prayed and wept and bowed, saying Amen, Amen. Their ears were opened. More importantly, their hearts were opened. They knew how much they needed God. And they felt great grief that they’d been away so long.
Verses 9 and 10 of Chapter 8 say, “And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God, do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared. For this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
What an amazing thing to hear, when you are expecting punishment and shame and rejection. What a gift of love and grace! A new beginning, a new heart, a new hope was theirs—and ours—because the joy of the Lord is our strength.
It brings to mind these beautiful words of Richard Foster:
I am inclined to think that joy is the motor,
the thing that keeps everything else going…
Joy produces energy.
Joy makes us strong.
The joy of the Lord is our strength as we take our first steps in this new year. We can be comforted that we are ready, we are prepared, and we have the help we need for every step along the way. We too can remember what even toddler Jesus surely knew—that God is with us, closer than our very own heartbeats. We can feel the joy God feels as we remember to turn toward him, to fix our eyes on what really matters, to let Imagination and Creativity play in us in a way that brings more light and love to the world.
Even for the wayward children of Israel who lived through generations of forgetfulness, God’s answer was not punishment, not rejection, but to give them joy. To encourage them to remember and feast and celebrate and share.
May we also move forward into this new year, full of the joy that comes from knowing, and trusting, and loving God.
- OT Nehemiah 8: 9-10
- NT Matthew 18: 1-5