The image beside these words was lovely, serene. It depicted a sunny day with just a few clouds. We saw Jesus seated on a rock under a tree, children gazing at him with fond reverence. But before I could become lost in the painter’s skillful strokes, one of my children yanked the book from her sister’s hand as another child spilled a container of juice on the newly scrubbed kitchen floor. Ah yes, real life with children! So I sighed and admitted that our children are not sitting quietly anywhere, much less gazing reverently into the Redeemer’s eyes. But despite the fact that they cannot touch Jesus, I know they experience a vibrant relationship with God. On a good day, I hear what the children have to teach me.
First Lesson: Joyful Noise
Our two-year-old, Bridget, is fond of the simple family ritual of grace before meals. She first encountered the familiar tune The Lord Is Good to Me in the loving home of her day care provider. Now she requests that prayerful song by calling out apple seed! each evening. And she is right that we should daily thank the Lord for giving me the things I need, the sun, and the rain, and the apple seed. Thus Bridget, a tiny priestess with blond ringlets, gathers her little flock around our table and reminds us to thank and praise the Lordnot quietly, but in jubilant song that ends with a vigorously made Sign of the Cross and, finally, Eat Papa, eat! She knows, no doubt, that God sits at the table with us and wants nothing more than that the meal be celebrated with joy. O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation (Ps. 95:1).
Second Lesson: Living Water
A friend told me about the experience of allowing her two-year-old daughter to receive Communion in the family’s Episcopal church. It is their pastor’s conviction that children should not be refused Communion if they genuinely desire it. Little Elisabeth was begging to receive and finally, after reflecting on the matter with their priest, her parents consented. Elisabeth’s reception of the host went without incident. But as she and her mother arrived at the cup, Elisabeth enthusiastically plunged her entire hand into it. As a parent who takes young children to Mass, I can fully understand why my friend went slinking to the rear of the church, grateful that she could be at the end of the Communion line. But I can envision a carpenter’s son smiling by the side of a well: If there’s living water in there, honey, don’t be shy; go for it!
Third Lesson: On Prayer
Megan, our middle child, intently notices everything her big sister does. On a recent visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, Grandma gave all the girls rosaries. One day, our oldest daughter was reverently fingering her rosary and making her way, with reasonable accuracy, through the corresponding prayers. Where does the Our Father go? she would ask, trying to recall the lessons from her first grade teacher. Megan must have been watching. A day or two later I found her quietly perched on top of the bunk bed, rosary in hand, offering the only prayer she can recite: Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts.... Rest assured, dear Megan, that even when we cannot yet pray as we ought, the Spirit of God looks upon our desire to pray and intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Rom. 8:26).
Fourth Lesson: A Friend of Jesus
Some years ago I was praying with our children at bedtime. We had already concluded when I recalled an additional intentiona sick friend whom I thought we should remember. I suggested we add the friend to our prayers. Our oldest daughter shook her head, We can’t. God just left. He went out the window, she informed me. And then, to my tremendous surprise, with a smile she added, And he wasn’t wearing any pants! I knew there was no need to run to the analyst’s couch with that one, for children somehow dwell in Eden for at least a few years after their birth. Instead I found myself musing about how real, how present God was to our child in that moment. As though God were a close friend, sitting in the room and conversing with us that evening. I do not call you servants any longer; I have called you friends (Jn. 15:15).
Fifth Lesson: Encountering God
Mountaintops, deserts and bathtubsGod is always there if we are looking. Our daughter Shannon was nearly four when she looked up at me from her evening bath and spoke with quiet reassurance: You are my God sometimes. What? I replied with something like alarm in my voice that I really meant as surprise. Nothing, she said sheepishly. No, it’s okay, honey, you didn’t say anything wrong. I just didn’t quite hear you. What did you say? Once again she spoke directly, You are my God sometimes. The beauty and weight of those words engulfed me. How did a three-year-old come to understand that each of us, created in God’s good image, can reveal at least a piece of the face of God to another? She is no student of theological anthropology. Here is what she knew: my husband and I brought her into being. We give her love on a daily basis. We forgive her mistakes. We sustain her little life. While we clearly are not God, at this moment Shannon recognized the ways in which we mirror God for her. I in them and you in me (Jn.17:23).
We are each summoned to receive the kingdom of God with the simplicity of a little child. But how is thatwearing pigtails, sporting skinned knees and giggling? No. Our children possess much greater depth. If we are willing to learn from them, we may be lucky enough to grow in our faithfaith that is joyful and eager, faith that is reverent and familiar, faith that looks upon goodness and love and proclaims God’s presence. Perhaps this is the prayer that God whispers into each child’s ear:
May you not become so preoccupied that you forget joy.
May you not become so self-assured that you forget eagerness.
May you not grow self-conscious of the manner in which you speak to me.
May you not relegate me to distant, heavenly thrones.
May you know that I am with you always...and may you continue to recognize my face!