Reaching the Inner Child
My neighbor, Anna, lived across the street and down a little ways on the lake in our neighborhood. Between go-kart races around our suburban streets, all the neighborhood kids would spend a lot of time at Anna’s house – catching fish, playing on her jungle gym, building forts and booby traps in the vacant lot next to her house, and playing Sea World. Yep. Playing Sea World. We would gather different sized buckets – corresponding to the different sized killer whales that lived in her lake – and fill them with water.
“Okay, I’m going to call the small one over and make him do a flip,” I’d say to Anna. Anna would pick up the smallest bucket. In true whale trainer fashion, I’d make some hand signals, and the smallest killer whale would jump up out of the water, then “Splash!” Water would be everywhere. The whale would swim over, and we’d feed it pieces of lily pad we had prepared earlier (the whales in Anna’s lake survived on a diet of water plants). Anna would then refill the bucket and we’d take turns.
That’s the beauty of childhood. It’s not until adults tell you the way things are “supposed to be” that you stop believing in the possibility of how things actually can be.
Sir Ken Robinson, chair of the UK Government’s report on creativity, education, and the economy reports that “of 1,600 children aged three to five who were tested, 98% showed they could think in divergent ways. By the time they were aged eight to 10, 32% could think divergently. When the same test was applied to 13 to 15-year-olds, only 10% could think in this way. And when the test was used with 200,000 25-year-olds, only 2% could think divergently.” (quoted from a 2005 conference by the Scottish Book Trust)
Over time, we learn that when we create, we take risk. When we diverge from the norm, we stand out. When we attempt to innovate, we could possibly fail. And, ultimately, there are potential consequences to being vulnerable – namely rejection. So, it’s easier to fall in line and let creativity go.
Each of us have moments we can remember that contributed to the end of our childlike awe and wonder. Perhaps it was the hushed chuckle of a stranger at something we did or said. Maybe it was the “oh, grow up” words of a parent. Maybe the pointing and jeering of a peer. Or the criticism of a teacher. Those moments start us down the path of mitigating rejection which, we discover, is about eliminating the risk of creativity.
Everything about our culture is about “growing up”, and we are certainly meant to mature. But in our maturing, we must learn the difference between childishness and childlikeness. Childishness is characterized by being unreliable, not being people who keep our word, and irresponsibility. These are the things we must shed while retaining the characteristics of childlikeness: wonder, awe, discovery, and sensitivity.
The reason I think Jesus is drawn to kids is because He, like them, is all about continuing to believe in what things can be. And, in a culture where children were devalued, He instructed the disciples to “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.”
Children have an inbuilt sense of wonder and discovery, and I think that’s what Jesus is pointing at when he says we must “receive the kingdom of God like a little child.” In the spirit and mind of a child, killer whales aren’t bound by the limitations of water temperature, salinization, or diet. They can live in the warm, murky waters of a natural, Florida lake. In the same way, childlike faith believes the power of God and the manifestation of the kingdom are limitless.
Jesus’ statement that “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” isn’t a statement about eternity. It’s a statement about the here and now. When teaching the disciples how to pray, Jesus prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as is it in heaven.” He was praying that the Father would manifest his kingdom – a kingdom of love, peace, order, health, and freedom – here and now. And later, in this moment with a child, Jesus tells us that the kingdom will come through those who embody childlike faith, and without childlike faith, we will not see the kingdom come. But the limitless expectation of childlike faith ushers the kingdom of heaven to earth.
So how do we recapture childlike faith? Sensitivity. It’s said that children are impressionable. But why, in a world in which there are new things to be explored and discovered, would we ever lose our ability to be impressionable? Why, when we serve a limitless, infinite God, would we ever anticipate an end to discovering the depths of Him? “Sensible adults” have become hardened to the world around us. It keeps us safe from ridicule and rejection. But it also closes us off from being surprised by awe. Sensitivity keeps us postured to discover. It keeps us listening and willing. And the more sensitive we become, the more able we are to perceive the voice of God.
Jesus did what He saw the Father doing. He said what He heard the Father speaking. And because of His sensitivity, He brought the kingdom in incredibly tangible ways. Later, He told us we’d do those things plus things even greater. But it means we have to remain sensitive, listening, and ready. Reward never comes without risk. The risk of childlikeness is that we’ll feel the pain of ridicule and rejection. But the reward is the coming of the kingdom in power that we’ve never seen before.