As a children’s minister and a mother of four, my heart space and head space are often occupied by children. I am always looking for new ways to promote healthy development physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. I read the books and attend the conferences and have the conversations. I spend the time with them. I kiss the boo boos and listen to the (long) stories and pray for their neighbor’s sister’s best friend’s cat. I look them in the eyes, and I see them. I see the needs and the questions. I see the struggle to grow up. We tend to reach adulthood and assume that children have it easy. With all our responsibilities, we miss the carefree days of childhood. But there is a bit of amnesia involved in this assessment. For we were once children, too. And while most of us had some magic in childhood, we might be tempted to forget about the angst. We might forget how incredibly challenging it is to learn everything for the first time. We might forget the helpless feeling of having little control over your life or choices. We might forget that figuring out how to handle our feelings was incredibly difficult, and we often failed. Maybe we have forgotten about the insecurities and the anxieties of new homes and new schools and new friends (or lack thereof). Maybe we have forgotten the deep feelings of shame and sadness when adults we respected spewed sharp, harsh words at us in their anger.
Being a child is not so easy. The problems of children are real. They are valid. They matter. And if we go about our adult lives dealing with our adult problems and dismiss the children – we are wrong. The Bible leaves no room for doubt that Jesus adored the children. Three of the four Gospel writers recorded the episode where Jesus put his teaching on hold to bless the children. Like bouncers in a nightclub or the secret service protecting the president, the disciples rebuked the parents who were bringing their children to Jesus. After all, he had more important things to do. He was, ahem, the Son of God, not a nanny. But, all three writers record these words of rebuke from the mouth of our Savior: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God/heaven belongs to such as these.” The words that follow in the Gospel of Mark are so beautiful: “And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” Jesus, who literally had the sin of the entire world to deal with, stopped what he was doing for the children. He physically embraced them. God made man wrapped the children in his arms and blessed them. And when he stopped his teaching and embraced the children, I believe that he taught us one of the most powerful lessons in the Bible.
Our teaching and theology are important. They matter. But when it comes right down to it, what this world needs is a warm embrace. What will spread the love of Jesus more effectively than a sermon, is a hug, validation, a knowing that someone has the time for you. And while we spin our wheels about what is allowed and who is allowed and where to draw all the lines – the souls are getting lost in the noise. And what they need is for us to have the courage to stop debating, to stand up and say, “I have time to embrace you. I have open arms for you. Jesus has open arms for you.” In God’s kingdom we are all his children. There are no adults. Like an earthly father who still unflinchingly loves and wants his adult children, God longs for all of us to rest in his embrace. He teaches us, yes, but like a grandmother in her rocking chair, God reads us his instructions from the safety of his lap, arms wrapped tightly around us. And only if we release ourselves into that embrace can we truly hear the rest of what he’s trying to say to us. Theology and doctrine grow cold in the absence of embrace. Just like rules and restrictions will turn our children cold in the absence of loving relationship with their parents. Love and relationship are always the precursors to healthy behavior. When we take the greatest commandments and submit them to a rule book rather than doing the reverse, we are lost.
So, who will show the children? Who will show them what it looks like to rest in an embrace before they engage in the race? Who will show them that accomplishments aren’t required in order to be loved? Who will show them that there is nothing they can do to earn the embrace? Who will love them in a way that helps them grow into the embrace of Jesus rather than into the anxiety of perfection? Who will show them that in the warm embrace of Jesus there is no hierarchy or system; there is only love? Who will show them that when you rest in him you can truly know peace? Who will model grace and love and joy? Who will show the children that there is nothing in this world that can ascribe value to them because they were bought full-price by the one who created it all? Who will look into their eyes and SEE them? Who will take the time for the children? Because, one day when we leave this world and enter the eternal embrace of Jesus, there will still be some here with the ability to spread his love to the world. And right now – today – they are called the children.
Tara Petty is a children’s minister at Pegram Church of Christ near Nashville, TN. She is currently pursuing her M.Div. at Lipscomb University. She is a mother to four young children and enjoys reading, writing, loving and laughing. She is passionate about discipling a generation of youth who love Jesus and live fully in the freedom of knowing him.