Over the past several years, as I’ve gone through the ordination process, I have had the opportunity to describe my salvation journey in multiple different papers that I’ve written. One of the things that always bothered me growing up was what I would call the doctrine of “personal decisionism” — the expectation that salvation always happens at an exact date and time. If you asked Sunday school teachers and other adult mentors, “Well, how do I know if I’ve been saved?” they would say, “Oh, you know if you are!” And if you acted enough unlike a Christian after your “decision,” then it proved retroactively that your decision wasn’t “sincere.” It took me decades to recognize that not everyone has to have a dramatic Damascus road experience like Paul. I got baptized in second grade, prayed Jesus back into my heart in tenth grade, but I think the most decisive moment in which God saved me was through a little girl in the Zocalo of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, in August of 1998. Jesus makes three statements in Mark 9 and 10 that talk about the saving power of children. This was the basis for a sermon that I preached two weeks ago: How children save us. Below I have shared some further reflections on these three statements.
1) “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)
In the immediate context of the passage, Jesus is responding to the disciples’ bickering over who would be the greatest disciple. He says, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” It’s very interesting how He picks up a child and puts Him in the middle of the group as His concrete representation of what it means to be last and a servant. We think that servanthood has to do with the sacrifices we are willing to make to “lend a helping hand” to other people. According to this definition, in middle-class American culture, most parents are their children’s “servants.” We don’t obey what they tell us to do, but we shape our lives around raising them to be successful. But servanthood to Jesus is not doing things for other people, at least in this context; it is a analogous to being the very last, at the bottom of the totem pole in a social order.
There is one other place where Jesus says that what we do for one group of people, we are doing for Him: “Whatever you have done for the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done for me” (Matthew 25:40). So Jesus has a special solidarity with children and the poor. But I think it’s more than just solidarity. What we have to remember is that Jesus is the eternal Word of God, through whom and for whom all things were created. As beings created in the image of God, we are supposed to radiate God’s Word back and forth to each other. The more that we have lost our innocence, the more the image of God is covered with the dust and grime of our sin.
Children are thus purer images of God since they haven’t been corrupted and jaded to the same degree that we have by the time we grow up. Though poor people don’t sin any less than rich people, they have fewer worldly attachments competing with God for their allegiance. This is the best I can come up with for why Christ’s presence would immanate more richly among children and the poor. It may be nonsense. But I do know that I experience the presence of Christ more intensely when I spend time with children and with the poor. It is more for my sake than theirs that I need to welcome them, because they bring Christ to me.
2) “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14)
Jesus says this about the children who the disciples were rebuking for coming to Jesus. This statement creates a real problem for “personal decisionism” if we take it seriously. Don’t you have to choose to enter the kingdom of God by accepting Christ as Lord and savior? How can the kingdom of God belong to a child who doesn’t yet have the intellectual capacity to choose Christ? Personal decisionists try to get around this by creating an extra-Biblical concept called the “age of accountability.” Up until you reach this age, supposedly, you’ll go to heaven if you die, but once you hit that age, you get booted out and you have to pray the sinner’s prayer to get back in.
I really think Jesus smacks his forehead every time He hears us talking this way, because what He’s saying here is that children already live in the kingdom; it’s not just that they have an exemption stamp on eternal judgment. Why do children live in the kingdom? Because they know how to worship, even though they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. They experience the world as a garden to be delighted in rather than a plantation to be exploited for personal gain. They naturally embody William Purkey’s famous quote: “You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching, love like you’ll never be hurt, sing like there’s nobody listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.”
One of the highlights of every week for me is watching the children dance in the aisle at our Saturday night contemporary service. I am extremely self-conscious about my body. When I was in middle school, the kids who bullied me said that I walked like a penguin and would often line up behind me to walk like penguins and laugh at me. But when I see my son dance without inhibition to our praise songs, it helps me to heal of my self-consciousness. He lives in the kingdom in a way that I would like to one day live there too.
3) “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God as a child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15)
This is the most direct passage about the necessity of children to our salvation, because we have to become like them to enter the kingdom of God. This means that we have to watch them and let them teach us. Now it’s often the case that when my fellow evangelicals read this passage, they try to cram its meaning into the Romans Road paradigm of salvation. They reduce “receiving the kingdom of God as a child” to a single word like “humility” which then serves as a segue into the Four Spiritual Laws, sinner’s prayer, etc, so that it’s really not about contemplating children’s actual behavior at all. Humility is not the word I would come up with to describe the kids I’ve known, especially the ones I raise. They are often bossy, rude, and demanding. But also completely dependent and helpless. They come to their father with empty hands: “Daddy, please get me a drink… Daddy, I need to go potty (and I need you to tell me that it’s okay to go).”
It is new to me to have empty hands. They are always full. The Sunday School teachers taught me God was my heavenly Father, and I was always bringing home trophies for the mantel, good report cards to sign. When I come to God, I always bring something. When I come to the ones I love, I always bring something. But today, I have nothing. No jokes, no homemade biscotti, not even my right mind. There is love still. I look across the table at the last piece of applewood bacon, at my full cup of coffee, at my friend. I open my empty hands and take that communion.
Here is the way that I acquired the empty hands that forced me to put my complete trust in the communion that only God can provide. I was down in Mexico in the summer of 1998 with my friend Kevin. We had gone down to the state of Chiapas where the Zapatista rebels had staged an uprising 4 years before because we wanted to “see the revolution.” When we got to San Cristobal, there were shops all over the town selling Zapatista t-shirts and ski-masks to the gringos. One of the locals referred to the phenomenon as Zapaturismo. In any case, I was in the Zocalo square when a little Mayan girl came up to me with frayed and unraveling Zapatista dolls in her hand. She was barefoot and her dress was dirty. She said, “Cómpralo! Señor por favor, cómpralo!” (Buy it, sir, please buy it!). And in that plea, God seized my heart and said You can never be a tourist again!
I couldn’t do anything to change her circumstances, even if I had bought 100 dolls from her which she was selling for a peso (1o cents) a piece. I discovered my own helplessness in her helplessness as I reflected on that moment in the years that would follow. I remember sitting with a friend in the downtown amphitheater in Charlottesville, VA a month later having an impassioned conversation, saying, “I have to go back and save the children!” She told me I was being absolutely ridiculous, and although that become part of the reason I stopped talking to her, I knew when she said it that she was right. I couldn’t save that little girl, but I had to become a part of what God was doing to create a world where five year old girls don’t spend their days in the street selling dolls. That was how I began to enter the kingdom, helpless as a child with a desperate need for God’s will to reign over the Earth as it does in heaven. God saved me from my self-absorbed tourism of life through that little Mayan girl; I hope I get to see her again in glory.