After an early Saturday matinee movie, the kids were restless and need to expend their extra energy. I took them to a park and set them free upon the playground. I sat on a bench along the perimeter of the wood chip covered play area and watched as my munchkins gravitated toward the swings and slides and monkey bars.
From my comfortable seat, I was able to watch each of the kids as they found something they loved. My oldest found a new friend who had an extra toy lightsaber; they spent the next half hour role playing adventures of Jedi knights. JJ climbed every climbable surface and told me he was pretending to be Indiana Jones. Zu alternated between her two favorite playground activities (the monkey bars and the swing set) before settling into a game of tag with other kids whose parents had motivations similar to mine: let the kids play hard before going home for dinner and bedtime.
Then something peculiar happened. Actually, I shouldn't say peculiar; it was something rather ordinary for my kids. I watched my daughter stroll from one side of the playground to the other so she could swing on the swings. She sat in one of the seats and started to pump her legs when she noticed a little girl struggling to get into the other swing. This other child was too short to climb into a standard swing without assistance and her parents were nowhere in sight. Zu jumped out of her seat and picked the girl up, helped her get situated comfortably, made sure she had a good grip on the chains, then gave her a few good pushes to get a pendulum like momentum going.
Zu did not get back into her own swing until she knew the other girl was moving and having fun. My daughter sacrificed her own pursuit of happiness to contribute to the happiness of a stranger.
My kids know the rules. They know that they need to be gentler when there are smaller kids on the playground. I have done my best to instill in them a sense of kindness and positivity in all their interpersonal interactions. At the same time, I know they're kids. I expect some level of juvenile narcissism. Yet my kids continually surprise me with acts of grace they show above and beyond the attitudes and behavior of typical children.
I have lost count of how many times my kids have stopped doing what they were doing when a preschool aged kid shows up. They go out of their way to help smaller children ascend the different levels of playground platforms, hold their hands as they cross bouncy bridges, and guide them safely down slides. They make extra efforts to teach younger kids how to climb a rope or use the monkey bars. They turn into little cheerleaders encouraging other kids to try and accomplish new things. Many new parents have thanked my kids for including their kids in playtime, then had them thank me for my kids gift of a short respite from parenting duties.
My kids did not get this trait from me. Truth be told, I am not overly fond of children. I love my kids more than I knew I was ever capable. But other people's kids? Well, I prefer the company of adults and grownup conversation.
With that in mind, it is a little awkward when I study the life of Jesus. In reading the Gospels, we find a Jesus who loved interacting with kids. And he made grand statements about children. First, he said that we must become like a child if we want to enter heaven. Then he said that the worst punishments were reserved for those who caused a child to sin. Finally he said heaven belonged to people like our youth.
Then you have people like me. I react to babies in diapers like they are alien creatures born of another world. I shy away from any kid that drools or still drinks from a bottle. I am ill equipped for conversations about Minecraft and Pokemon (even though my kids love both of those intellectual properties). My inner child would rather watch episodes of the X-Files after his parents thought he went to bed. Yes, you have a cute kid but do not ask me to play with them until they're old enough for scary campfire stories.
Yet we have the words of Jesus: "I tell you the truth, you must change and become like little children. Otherwise, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
Most people interpret this passage of scripture with the familiar phrase "having faith like a child." But the original Greek text did not use the word faith. In fact, it did not specify what aspect of kidhood we should adopt. The passage from Matthew 18:3 used the words στραφῆτε καὶ γένησθε. Straphēte and genēsthe.
The Greek word στραφῆτε (straphēte) is a verb meaning to be converted, transformed, or changed. γένησθε (genēsthe) is the Greek verb to become something else or to prove yourself as something. Both of these words together, στραφῆτε and γένησθε, transforming and becoming, imply a new state of being. A childlike state of being.
What aspect of being a kid did Jesus recognize as being so valuable? Is it the childlike faith, willingness to believe without question? Maybe. But I think it is something more profound.
As I watched my daughter help a younger girl up and into the swings, I thought about this passage from the gospel of Matthew and another word came to mind. Grace.
We do not need the faith of a child as much as we need the grace of a child.
Sure, they may be at the stage where they're growing and nothing more than bumbly awkward; far from graceful in their movements. They are the age where they are discovering autonomy and trying to define their identity as an individual separate from their parental units. Yet the way they interact with their peers show greater grace than many grownup conversations. The comment threads under YouTube videos seem primitive and barbaric in comparison. Children treat each other with mutual admiration and cooperation that is completely absent in American politics.
In seeing my kids give up their selves to benefit strangers, I noticed something. The age, gender, religious, and ethnic differences between my kids and the other kids they play with at the park are completely irrelevant. They approach their companionships with a perspective that says "I'm a kid, you're a kid, we're the same. Let’s be friends!"
In a kid's world, if two of them both like playing tag, they are going to play a game of tag. In the real world of corporate structure and grownup responsibilities, two people with similar interests would sooner condemn each other to hell for disagreeing on finer details of partisan beliefs than spend five minutes of conversation over drinks.
Even as children begin to notice differences, those divisions do not matter. Unless we - the adults in their lives teach it to them. Until they are taught otherwise, kids naturally give each other grace in abundant measure.
They live an existence where no one has told them that girls are better or boys are better. They have never seen one skin color as superior to another. They have never been encouraged to criticize someone for their religious or political beliefs. They have never viewed someone's physical disability or lack of financial privilege as making them less important.
Racism. Sexism. Bigotry. These are learned behaviors. Kids do not instinctually hate anyone. Discrimination is something kids learn from grownups.
When Jesus said that we should be changed and transformed to become this new childlike creation, perhaps this innocence free from the bonds of hatred is what he had in mind. Maybe Jesus wants us to approach our fellow residents of planet earth from the perspective of a level playing field. That none of us are better than any other. We are unique, yet equal. Each of us possess worth. Each of us deserves respect.
If I am to become like a child, then I pray God gives me grace.