The heavy metal door bangs behind me, the electric buzz locks the bolt in place. After a pause, another door buzzes and is unlocked, controlled by a police officer sitting near a video monitor in another room. I cross the florescent-lit linoleum and open the next heavy metal door, making my way through this threshold of security.
It’s my first visit inside the county jail. My mind and breath are electric with anticipation. We — the other volunteer I am shadowing and I — arrange the blue plastic chairs in a circle and place copies of Scripture passages, prayers and reflections upon them. Shortly I will encounter my first group of inmates. More than a dozen men will join us for prayer and Bible study.
Driving through brightly colored October woods to the jail, I pondered…
Last Friday morning—the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration—two screens were in front of me; words and images flooding in.
A glowing laptop sat upon my knees, my web browser opened to an online Bible, Psalm 34. It was there because I awoke with this song in my head, particularly the “The LORD hears the cry of the poor, blessed be The LORD” part.
I stared at these words:
Keep your tongue from evil,
your lips from speaking lies.
Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
~ Psalm 34: 14-15
I heard these words:
Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
I will fight for you with every breath in my body. And I will never, ever let you down.
America will start winning again, winning like never before.
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders.
I can’t make sense of the division, the gap between the two ways. I know, though, that I want to live under the influence of Scripture, the sacred Word of God.
I wonder what is happening to the Body of Christ; whether the wounds are becoming infected. Perhaps flesh is being gouged, torn apart. Maybe blood is flooding our world and we are too blind to see. (I have been meditating on the wounds of Christ ever since Inauguration Day.)
Certainly, much stirs in my mind and heart. What will happen to the children of God who are in the most vulnerable corners of society? What will happen to those who have been declared as enemies?
I see faces of friends waiting for decades for their citizenship papers to come through. I visualize children passing their lives away in detention centers. I see the face of a teen I taught years ago—a beautiful Iraqi Muslim who had migrated out of a war zone.
I think of the millions of people who are also fleeing war zones, oppression, starvation—good people who of course would prefer to stay securely in their homeland but can’t. They are powerless in their circumstances. (I know the feeling of powerlessness.)
I remember the women—young mothers coming right off the streets, desperate to get their lives together—choosing life with every chance, only to have the structures of society spit out a mess of impossibility at them. It’s impossible (all at once) to afford food, to find a job, to have good transportation, to find secure housing and to have proper health care but somehow—perhaps by the might of love alive within them—they persevered and gained stability for their family.
I think of the polluted waters and soils; of the climate refugees moving from place to place across this planet.
I think of the words of Jesus Christ uttered from the cross, his body aching with misery: “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
I feel my own heart thirst for justice and peace for all; for a world centered on the love of Truth and guided by Gospel values—values of sacrifice for the sake of the other; values of protection of the planet and the poor and vulnerable.
Inauguration Friday was as another Good Friday, another day when the Body of Christ was wounded upon the cross.
Meditating on the cross of Christ in the world today, I remember my deep conviction that the United States, with only 5 percent of the population but with 25 percent of the world’s wealth, needs not selfishly protect itself—we need not to give into the temptations for greed, power and pride. We must reject all of the seven deadly sins.
With all the news of heartache, fear and pain rapidly increasing in our world today, it seems we are stuck upon the cross, we are stuck in Good Friday.
We need not stay stuck. We believe in Easter Sunday and we know it is always coming in three days. We know that Christ’s wounds upon his body have been transformed, glorified.
The LORD’s face is against evildoers
to wipe out their memory from the earth.
The righteous cry out, the LORD hears
and he rescues them from all their afflictions.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted,
saves those whose spirit is crushed.
~ Psalm 34: 17-19
We are that body, formed and guided by mercy, generosity and hope. We shall arise as one body united, radiating Love and Truth.
Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.
Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:
Do not be afraid.(Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.(Matthew 6:34)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.(Matthew 6:25)
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)
Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.
Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today.
Jesus’ demands are not about darkness, though. We are children of Light.
I get it: to be a Christian means I am a person full of vibrant hope, love, and faith in God. Like a ceaseless trust that God can handle anything and shine light and peace into any situation. I know Jesus is trustworthy.
Yet. The “Be not afraid” words straight from Jesus’ heart stir up a gray space inside me; a place where I am not letting my trust in God illumine my faith life. Ultimately, anxiety corrodes the place where God’s light could glow bright.
In the past few months I have been reminded that my anxiety out-of-order is neurological, a condition made by realities beyond my control: genetics, trauma, biomechanics. I wake in the dark of the night with my heart pounding, my body vibrating with restless energy. My mind races with irrational thoughts; electric brain waves I struggle to redirect toward hope, trust and acceptance. My muscles cramp with tension; pinch nerves. Tears of pain moisten my eyelashes. I am afraid of things that I can’t even name and my body lets me know it.
Some might argue there’s good reason to worry. The news doesn’t sound good; happy headlines are hard to find. From Aleppo to South Sudan to the cracking corners in communities throughout the United States, the trouble only seems to be getting worse.
Faced with burdens and commissioned for Christ, we’re overwhelmed. Hearts are heavy with abundant hurt and there are many wounds to tend to. It continues to feel as things will just keep getting worse before they get better. Genuine cries and terrified screams are causing racket in our hearts and dreams as we do as we’re called to do: move toward the pain with servant hearts open wide.
When my body begins to manifest the anxiety that somehow settles into me, it can take hours for me to know relief, to relax into the dark, to rest and calm down. Often, what causes the most comfort when I am in the thick of fear is the calm of silence, the stillness of solitude and wide open spaces, like expansive skies.
At times, within the gaps of seconds ticking, I somehow come to gradually feel a holy, healing Presence; a fleeting consciousness that I am not ever alone; that Jesus himself knew—knows—the darkness and fear. (That’s Emmanuel, God with us.) Other times, my racing heart and shallow breath either normalize gradually or cause me to pass out from exhaustion.
Because the fear is real and intense, I find myself thinking of holy folks who have dealt with it well; who have modeled for me trust in God. I think of how the Holy Family were no strangers to a climate of fear, a culture of death. I imagine how oppressed the common person in Nazareth must have felt as they tried to survive on subsistence farming and continued to pay heavy taxes for fear of torture, robbery, murder, or the kidnapping and raping of their children. Certainly, they were desperate for a Messiah, a redeemer to liberate them. I meditate on how a very pregnant Mary must have felt; filled with discomfort and concern as she awaited the arrival of her son. I consider how uncertain Joseph must have felt; how he worked to remain steady and kind even while his heart and gut flipped in fear. I pray with Jesus squirming within the dark womb.
There are other words in the Bible that give me strength, that calm my fears—important messages first given to the early Church:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our Godby which the daybreak from on high will visit usto shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.(Luke 1:76-79)
Yes: no matter how strong our fear or how deep the darkness, we are children of Light. During the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we look for the light in the darkness, we decorate our homes with glowing bulbs, we observe the nature of light. We imitate the rays of light that unite together and illumine a way to peace, providing hope to all.
We live in a society that has a tendency to divide us into enemy camps. Violence and squabbles due to differences like politics or culture have become strangely normalized.
No matter what has become culturally acceptable, the Gospel challenges us to live counterculturally. Although some people may avoid those they don’t like or agree with, we reach out to others with love and compassion. While others discriminate against or systematically oppress those who are different because of their race or beliefs, we seek to welcome and appreciate diversity. Such bold actions help us know our belonging in part of an inclusive, universal Church. To embrace and celebrate diversity is central to what it means to be Catholic. As challenging as it may be, when our family of faith unites as one we are obeying the words of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, thank you for the beauty of human diversity and creating us as one. May I recognize and promote our oneness today. Amen.
Editor’s note: This is the second blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (read lesson #1). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next three installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.
Ten years ago, I was enchanted by my Ugandan family’s practice of gathering to praise God together each evening. Their nightly ritual of vivacious singing and dancing, Scripture reading, and “giving testimony” is my favorite and most enduring memory of Uganda. It inspired the bedtime routine which my husband and I have adopted for our daughters (though I’ll be the first to admit that our energy pales in comparison to my Ugandan family’s), and it is what I miss most when I become nostalgic for my home across the globe.
Since my Ugandan family is always hosting visitors, they take measures to ensure that everybody can participate fully in their evening prayer. They have at least a dozen Bibles sitting around their living room, each well-worn and annotated. (When I returned home from our recent trip, I was embarrassed to realize that we barely have enough Bibles to accommodate our family of four. What does it say about our priorities, that we could provide enough Berenstain Bears books for an entire platoon, but we don’t have a single Bible to spare?!)
Beyond the presence of so many Bibles, though, it is my Ugandan family’s continued presence together each night that most impresses me.
A decade ago (before I was a busy mom) I didn’t appreciate just how committed my host parents have to be in order to carve out this precious time together as a family. In the 10 years since I lived with them, their lives have only gotten busier and more complicated: they are now raising four beautiful children, they both work full time, they are both completing PhDs, and they both hold leadership positions in a multitude of church and community organizations.
And yet, somehow, they spend even more time together praying each evening than they did 10 years ago.
During our visit I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mother Teresa, who advised her Missionaries of Charity: “Each day we should spend one hour in adoration, except on days we are busy—then we should spend two.” For my Ugandan family, praying together is not just a part of the day; it is the apex of the day. They are willing to sacrifice personal leisure, extended meals, and even sleep in order to honor their family prayer time.
So … What’s my excuse?
For reflection: How can we cultivate in ourselves and our children the conviction that dedicating time to God is as essential to daily life as eating and sleeping?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. One of her life goals is to bring her daughters to Uganda so that, among other things, they understand her obsession with spontaneous dance parties.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me, for at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” –Luke 1:41-44
Gaudete! This is the week of joyful anticipation!!
Just as Jesus and John leaped for joy in the wombs of their holy mothers, we rejoice and leap for joy as we wait for the great things to come, the fulfillment of God’s promises!
Yes, we are aware that we wait in darkness. We are overwhelmed and pained by the intensity of oppression suffered throughout the world, near and far. Children sleep on streets, many people lack adequate shelter and water, bombs are being dropped, refugees are fleeing. Poverty, injustice, and violence are real and serious threats upon the dignity of humanity.
Still, with hope and joy we lovingly labor for a world where God’s reign is known, wherein justice is triumphant.
No matter our circumstances, how can our voices contribute toward the coming fullness of God’s reign? How can we join our voices together and sing a song of reversal that is in harmony with the strength and hope heard in Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55?
And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
I recently studied Elizabeth Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) within her masterful work Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 2003) as part of my graduate studies. This writing encouraged me to remain faithful and hopeful in the midst of the struggle for justice. I was provided a solid footing in information about the requirements for justice.
For example, even though Mary’s song is the longest speech from any woman in the entire New Testament, it is one of several hymns sung by Jewish women; it is parallel in content and structure to what was sung by several prophetesses in the Old Testament. Like their songs, Mary’s song also praises God’s creation of a liberating revolution.
With scholarship and reverence, Johnson details how Mary’s particular circumstances established her as dangerous for anyone who does not embrace God’s reign. God chose Mary, a poor woman, to be the partner in our salvation and she praises God from the depth of her relationship with God; God has preference for those who are economically and spiritually poor.
Mary was an oppressed woman and her song paints a picture of justice; throughout salvation history we understand that God defines justice as reversal. Mary’s voice foreshadows Jesus’ message in the Gospels. Fittingly then, Mary’s song is a “revolutionary song of salvation whose concrete social, economic, and political dimensions cannot be blunted.”
Praise and justice come together; by the life-giving body of the pregnant Mary we know a role model for solidarity with the oppressed. In her message, we can envision a world where all the hungry are fed and all power structures turn upside down.
Mary’s song is a song for everyone, and it is very much music to the ears of people who live in poverty. Yet, Johnson admits, “This message will not appeal to those who are satisfied with the way things are.” She advises that those who are prosperous strengthen their solidarity. I was invigorated for my task of informing those of us who comfortably enjoy privileges about the needs of a hungry humanity, of calling all of us to more mindfulness.
Ultimately, Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat provides me with a hopeful lens through which I can view the injustices of today. It taught me how to joyfully sing songs of response that glorify and please God, through both word and deed.
By Mary’s partnership we experience the dawning of the Messianic Age. Her song is also a daily prayer that can inform our every-day work of helping God’s justice reign. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerless of humankind.”
Indeed, as Johnson so clearly articulated, in Mary’s universal song we hear the ultimate Advent hymn—a song of hope to reverse the patterns of suffering prevalent in the world today.
As we leap in joy and wait in hopeful anticipation for the coming of God’s Kingdom fully known, let us join Mary and do the work of establishing God’s justice while this song rings in our hearts!
 Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister (New York: Continuum, 2003), 263-264.
The beatitudes have been called Jesus’ version of the Ten Commandments. They sum up the heart of his message, point us in the right direction, show us the truth of God and grant eternal hope.
Except they are a lot harder to understand. And to follow.
What does it really mean, that
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3-10
This week I heard the closest thing ever to a modern restatement of the beatitudes. It was an interview with a young French child and his father at the Bataclan, the site of one of the terror attacks in Paris last Friday.
“They might have guns, but we have flowers.”
Or in other words….
In the face of a gun, we light a candle and place a flower.
In the face of loss our empty hands link with other empty hands and we are not alone anymore.
In the face of horror we touch that place/time where God’s love is absolutely unstoppable.
Thank you to all the children who are suffering fear and loss this week and have taught us the meaning of Jesus’ words again.
P.S. Sometimes I like to hear the beatitudes with fresh ears. Check out this version from The Message by Eugene Peterson, which is not a Bible translation but a re-telling in modern language.
“And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”
Sometimes I feel that if only Jesus had left some concrete teachings, a pattern of life to follow and a community of believers to hold on to, it would all be easier. I want him to tell me what to do today in this messy life and my attempts to be a Franciscan sister in a world that feels like it is disintegrating. But the truth is that he did. Today, in the 21st century, as we look around us at problems the planet has never seen before, we see the shining witness of Jesus as lived out in surprising ways.
Last weekend I attended The Francis Factor: How St. Francis and Pope Francis are changing the world, a conference looking at the contemporary implications of St. Francis and Pope Francis. We were over 1,000 people lead in contemplative reflection by a mystic, a scientist, and an activist: Father Richard Rohr, Sister Ilia Delio, and Shane. What would the little brother from Assisi tell us today? How does Pope Francis call us to be an authentic people of mercy and love?
Shane gently suggested that Jesus gives many different models of how to live faithfully, either from privilege or without it. Jesus tells the rich young man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor …” (Mathew 19:21). Zacchaeus, instead, gives away half of what he has and then repays those he has cheated four-fold (Luke 19:8). Mary, Joanna, Susanna and other women contributed to the support of Jesus and his disciples “out of their own means” (Luke 8:1-3). After the resurrection followers shared all in common, were of one mind in the Temple and broke bread together (Acts 2:43-47). The Bible has a plethora of practical examples of what to do—as a Christian—with access to financial resources.
As we reflected more we realized that maybe our true poverty is in the quality of our relationships. Pope Francis and St. Francis, by their examples, break us out of the same-old same-old mold of complacency and individuality. Here are some suggestions from The Francis Factor:
Pray consciously for the gift to trust more. Let prayer fester inside of you, slowly changing all you do from the inside out.
Surround yourself with people who change your idea of what it means to be normal. Listen to the children, the dreamers and the riskers.
Change the patterns of your daily life so that instead of insulating from suffering, you embrace the Gospel call, cross and all.
Start to build communities of trust. When violence in our neighborhoods is on the nightly news, how do we reach out beyond our fear to genuinely find each other?
Become like the one we spend time with in prayer so we leave the fragrance of Jesus in the world everywhere we go.
Fascinate the world with God’s love.
Live from a theology of “enoughness,” where there’s enough for everybody’s need and not for everybody’s greed.
Yes, there is definitely a Francis factor going on. I can feel it in the air as the United States prepares for the pope’s visit. Something is afoot and it sure does looks like Jesus in modern clothes.
Note from Sister Julia: A version of the following text was written for my coursework in my Introduction to New Testament course at Catholic Theological Union where I am a part-time student. The assignment was to write a Biblical commentary on a particular Gospel passage. The passage I selected was Mark 6: 7-13, which was the Gospel for this past Sunday.
Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick— no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave. Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.” So they went off and preached repentance. The Twelve drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Jesus gave a particular Mission to the Twelve from the Gospel of Mark. And, it is a very interesting story when you are aware of the historical context. In the time of Jesus, there was another group of countercultural preachers who belonged to what was called the Cynic movement. They were founded by Diogenes of Sinope in fourth century Greece and had spread throughout the Mediterranean world, including Palestine. They carried a staff to show that they were homeless and a knapsack to show that they were self-sufficient. They were urban and individual. What Jesus establishes with his sending of the Twelve is a very different movement, as his missionaries were rural and communal and did not carry a knapsack (nor a staff, in Luke and Matthew). This showed their solidarity with and dependence on those to whom they preached. 
Like the Twelve, we are called to embrace God’s mission and serve. We must move out and go to be with the other to serve and share the good news. But we don’t arrive as heroes or messiahs, we come to companion and be a guest. We are equal with those who we help, as we unite with their experience of daily life and receive their hospitality. As we give messages of hope and healing, we receive. This is real solidarity and interdependency. It is a radical way of loving ones neighbor, for this “walking with” will not make us into the rich, famous or accomplished.
In order to really live the Gospel in this way of mutuality we may need to change our life around. We may need to change our mind about what it means to help and to serve in the name of God. We may need to make changes in our life in order to be present to others in the ways that God needs us.
In order to do this with integrity and love, it is necessary for us to pause and assess the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I offer a few simple reflection questions to guide us as we seek to implement Jesus’ mission into our modern times.
Question 1.) Who are you with? The Mission of the Twelve begins with Jesus summoning his friends and then sending them out as pairs. Christ summons each of us and wants us to remember that we are not alone. For the disciples of Jesus in the first century, it could have been dangerous to travel alone. Plus, people would have been less likely to take them seriously and welcome them if they were solo travelers. For us who are also called to build the reign of God, it is unnecessary and foolish for us to try to be alone in doing good for God. We are a communal people. We belong to a Trinitarian God of relationship. We need each other. Let us lean on others for support as we do the work of God. Let us support and unite with others while we do that which God calls us.
Question 2.) What does God need us to bring? The instructions that Jesus gives the Twelve is that they are to “take nothing for the journey.” (Although they could have a staff, a second tunic and a walking stick.) I am reminded of the time when I was a Jesuit Volunteer and flew to California to work with homeless youth for an entire year. As I was preparing for my missionary experience, a letter from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps program director arrived and challenged me. The letter quoted this passage from Mark and reminded me that I would be arriving to a fully furnished house. I was asked to pack lightly and bring little with me so I could learn to live simply and live in solidarity with the poor. Packing was a real struggle because it helped me to recognize my attachments. Somehow I sensed that the less I went with, the more open I would be to receiving whatever God had in store for me. I knew I could trust the circumstances and I could trust God. We need to bring trust in God.
Question 3.) What does God need us to leave behind? When I was packing for my year of service it felt very freeing to realize that I could leave a lot of my possessions behind and start fresh in a new city. It became clear that I was bringing a lot of excitement and eagerness for my adventure. It also became clear that it would not be helpful for me to be guided by fear, but by love. Just as The Twelve, I needed to leave behind any attachments that could get in the way of serving God, especially any lingering attachments to fear. The Twelve needed to leave behind anything that would prevent them from being open to those who they would meet, anything (such as a purse and money) that would not show them to be an equal. God needs us to leave behind fear and other attachments that prevent us from being open to others.
When Jesus sent the Twelve on a mission, he was establishing a movement to live out his mission. In our day, we are also sent to serve. Like the Twelve, as we go on our journeys and do acts of love, we must bring hearts full of trust in God, leave fear behind and be ready to love all we meet as equals. When we move in this way, we will build relationships in solidarity and interdependency. We will build the Kingdom of God! May God bless us as we go. Amen!
 John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images, (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994), 148.
It was one of those moments every parent dreads: my two-year-old had worked herself into an ugly public tantrum, and I had to abandon our planned activity in order to haul her thrashing body out to the car. Frustrated and embarrassed, I couldn’t help but think to myself: “Seriously, Jesus? The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these?”
Jesus, however, called the children to himself and said, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” –Luke 18:16-17
Before I was a mom, I never really pondered the Bible passages in which Jesus encourages His disciples to become like little children. I assumed He was extolling children’s innocence and telling us to return to the purity of our youth.
But now I know better.
Little children are far from innocent. They are impatient, volatile, jealous, and unreasonable. They are, as it turns out, younger versions of the human species, and the human species has only ever produced one perfect human.
So why does Jesus hold these tiny tyrants in such high esteem?
As my daughter approaches her third birthday, I have a few thoughts on the matter (insert requisite disclaimer that I am not a biblical exegete… just a mom who has observed her kids for the past few years): Though they are not innocent, per se, young children are exceptionally transparent; their flaws and failings -be they fits of anger or refusal to share a toy- are out there for the world to see. Even their occasional attempts at deception are laughably obvious (ie: my daughter announcing from another room, “Mama, I didn’t make a mess!”). If they are angry with you, they do not subtly contrive to tear you down –they simply throw a fit.
When children misbehave, they do so with glorious flagrance.
And that, I think, is what Jesus was driving at: whatever children do, they do it wholeheartedly and unabashedly. So, in those wonderful moments in which our kids are not humiliating us, the face of God shines brilliantly through their wide-open eyes. A seemingly insignificant activity, like playing in the sprinklers on a summer day, is a downright awe-inspiring experience for my daughter. She does not guard herself or her emotions, but runs headlong into the adventures of each day.
It’s easy, then, for me to picture the little ones of Jesus’ time as they ran toward Him, laughing and jostling one another in their haste, completely oblivious to the impropriety of their gusto. In those days, children dwelled in the periphery of society, their immaturity excluding them from full membership in the community. Yet despite their lowly station, these children easily recognized and sought out the loving power of Jesus (as did so many of “the least of these”).
Nowadays, we afford children more respect than did the ancient Jews, but the fact remains that our kiddos are wholly dependent upon us to meet their needs. Amazingly, this relative powerlessness does not burden them with feelings of unworthiness or insecurity (as it likely would you or me), but instead frees them to experience life with a passion that knows neither limits nor shame. When my daughter belts out “Jesus Loves Me,” she doesn’t apologize for her untrained voice… And she doesn’t doubt for a second that the words she sings are true. So why do we?
We are all of us imperfect, but perfectly loved anyway.
I sometimes wonder how much deeper my relationship with Christ would be if I ran toward Him with as much unbridled eagerness as my daughter runs toward me: arms outstretched, grinning or sobbing, unself-conscious of anything other than our mutual love. How much more loudly would my life proclaim the love of God if I were unencumbered by an instinct for self-preservation? How much more devout a disciple would I be if I could not hide my own brokenness behind an exterior of apparent self-sufficiency?
In other words: how much worthier of the Kingdom of God would I be if, rather than pretending at nonchalance or stoking the fires of silent resentment, I followed my daughter’s example and just threw an undignified tantrum once in awhile?
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia who lives near Seattle. She is the mother of an almost-three-year-old and a 1-year-old, and she considers herself lucky to have only had to abandon a public place due to a tantrum once (so far…).