A Child: A Meditation for Ash Wednesday

Scripture can be found here...

What does it mean to become like a child?


There are lots of ways we could answer that question. One of the most common is to talk about children’s innocence. I am a skeptic about that idea. It’s a sentimental thought, an appealing one, but one that doesn’t seem, to me, to involve any familiarity with actual human children.


I don’t think Jesus is talking about innocence.


I notice Jesus doesn’t tell us to have the faith of a child, which is a relief. We can’t un-hear things. I can’t un-know them. And anyway, ours is a gospel that can stand up to the scrutiny that good scholarship shines on it, that benefits from our deeper understanding of things like context and nuance and language.


I don’t think Jesus is talking about faith.


I love the idea that this might be about playfulness. Children know how to play, and we so often forget as we grow older; play kind of sneaks up on us, in the guise of friends who haven’t forgotten, or unexpected belly laughs as we watch a movie or hear a funny story.


However, the lot of children in Jesus’ day was not one that lent itself to play. Children in the ancient world had no status; they had no rights; they were completely dependent on others to care for them and make the world safe for them, and the law explicitly gave their parents the right of life and death over them. There was no department of Social Services to check on them. There was no legal system to prosecute neglectful or abusive parents.


I don’t think Jesus is talking about play.


Actually, he tells us what he’s talking about. It’s right there. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matt. 18:4-5). Be humble like a child.


Be humble. Humility is a tough concept to get our minds around. We keep confusing it with humiliation, and that’s not what it means. Humility is actually a kind of wisdom. It means, knowing the lay of the land—knowing that we are created in the image of God and are beloved children of God, and that we are not God. Humility is knowing where we stand in the grand scheme of things. Not at the bottom, not at the top, but in the glorious and crowded middle. Humility is knowing our limitations as well as our strengths, and having a realistic appraisal of both.


A few weeks back I saw an article about someone named Inspector Gamache. And then I saw another one, and another. And when the universe tries to get my attention like that, I try to cooperate. The good Inspector is the creation of a Canadian novelist named Louise Penny, and his wisdom has reached out beyond the realm of fans of murder mysteries. Inspector Gamache is becoming known for four statements that are the basis of the way he does his work and lives his life, and he feels that they are so important, he passes them on to the young agents he trains.  The four statements are: I’m sorry. I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong.


The more these statements have rattled around in my head, the more convinced I am that they are all about humility.


I’m sorry. People tend to use these words in different ways. Some of us say “I’m sorry” almost automatically, too much, inappropriately. We say it if we accidentally block someone’s way in the aisle at the grocery store. And some of us rarely utter the words, as if they had the power to destroy our sense of self. But to say I’m sorry—appropriately, when we have done something we know has caused hurt or harm—is to understand our own limitations. It is to accept ourselves as fallible—and still loveable!—children of God, and to know full well that, we are saying the words to another fallible, loveable child of God.


I don’t know. A few years back I was asked to moderate the Presbytery of Susquehanna Valley, a task that absolutely terrified me initially. The idea of standing before the Presbytery Assembly, supposedly in command of the Book of Order and Robert’s Rules, made my insides go all watery. Then I discovered something. There were people there who knew Robert’s Rules like the back of their hands. Also the Book of Order. I was not one of them, but I was among them. In other words, if something came up, and I didn’t know the answer or the process or the path, I could say, “I don’t know,” and I could turn to someone else, and get help. It was completely liberating. It remains one of the most wonderful discoveries I’ve ever made. In the case of everyone who ever lived, including Albert Einstein, the things we don’t know outnumber those we know a hundredfold, a thousandfold, a millonfold!  To know that we don’t know is freedom. It is also the beginning of a search for wisdom, as we turn to those who can help us find it.


Which brings me to: I need help. How incredibly hard it can be to say these words. No one wants to be incapable, unable. Our egos can be so tied up in our abilities. But needing help often has nothing to do with our abilities. We can learn to do calculus. We can learn to speak French. But until we do, while in Montreal, it would be best if we knew how to say, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” because we probably are going to need the help of someone who can bridge the language barrier. The harder time to ask for help is when we simply cannot do what we wish we could do on our own. Whether that is because of our basic ability, or because of the situation, it still rubs up against our sense that we should be able to do it. But if we need help, no one is served by our trying to muscle through. Not us, not anyone.


I was wrong. I’ve been telling this next thing to everyone who will listen. I have lately become aware that one of my current urgent spiritual tasks is dealing with my need to be right. I’ve learned this from loved ones. I’ve learned this from spirited debates that turned from good-natured to just a bit too sharp-edged. I’ve learned this from catching myself. One of my favorite spiritual mentors, Ann Lamott, says, “You can either practice being right or you can practice being kind.” Ouch. I have spent years practicing being right. Time to spend some time practicing the other one.


I’m sorry. I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). And truly, to be unable to say these things is to relegate ourselves to a kind of hell in which we are never able to truly make contact with one another. These sentences have another thing in common: they are ways into relationship. We were not set here on earth alone. We were set down in all kinds of communities, from families to neighborhoods to tribes to churches/ mosques/ synagogues. All of us, precious, beloved children of God. All of us, able to find our way back to that child-like state of recognizing that we need one another.


We need one another. That is how we become like children. I’m sorry; I need you to forgive me. I don’t know: please teach me. I need help; will you give it to me? I was wrong; I want you to know I value you more than I value thinking I was right.


We need one another. And by the grace and love of God, we have been given one another. Precious. Beloved. Children of God. Becoming like children. Together. Thanks be to God. Amen.