Jesus once said, in between his healings and peregrinations: Become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven.
I have no business getting into descriptions of heaven, nor really how one gets there, but it does beg the question: How can I be like a child?
I’m certain Jesus was talking less about the temper tantrums children have a tendency to throw and more about their very innocent and open-minded view of the world. That is to say, for children, judgment is simply not an option. Neither is comparison. All things are absorbed on their own merits.
Let me take it a step further. As a born and bred Christian, if I were to take a young child of mine to a service one Sunday morning, what do you suppose would be expected of him or her? If they were young enough, not a single person would expect them to know all the rituals and gesticulations that go hand-in-hand with Lutheran worship. There is learning yet to be done, and many an opportunity for teaching.
We assume (rightfully I think) that they are a canvas that has yet to be painted. The same scenario has played out in countless other traditions; I have seen Hindu families trying to corral their young children together to pay attention during worship at the temple, and I have seen young ones enjoying the silence of a Buddhist meditation. But regardless of the child and regardless of the tradition, there is an openness to their presence. Here is the opportunity to find the divine, we tell ourselves. What better way than to experience it, to observe it, to be a part of it?
This is what I think Jesus was getting at when he said heaven can only be entered as a child. First, I embrace the modern theology (sacrilegious as it is to some) that heaven is realized in the now. And, yes, children are the key: If we truly consider what it is in their youth that makes them both welcomed and welcoming to expressions of the divine, then we have a clue as to how we should act. Why are we incapable, as adults, of embracing innocence and open-mindedness? What is it about children that makes them the sole possessors of nonjudgmental hearts?
Yes, yes, we can all say that in the course of living we form opinions and ideas, and this is precisely what makes us who we are. Isn’t it difficult, then—perhaps impossible and altogether undesirable—to throw away our visions, thoughts, opinions, biases, ideas? But that’s not what we’re asked to do. It seems antithetical to carry with us distinct impressions of the world and to forgo judgment, criticism, and analysis. But is it? Religion—or, perhaps more appropriately, faith—asks us not to dump these very human traits when we enter into worship and community. Rather, it suggests that we embrace diversity. It IS possible to hold beliefs in our hand and yet to be open to the beliefs of others. A child who has known only Tonka trucks since his earliest days would not turn his nose up at Hot Wheels. More than likely, he would embrace the new, while still enjoying the old. And, if you put both in front of him, he would probably make up a game that involved trucks and cars.
It’s a silly metaphor, but you get my point. It’s not that we’re asked to abandon ourselves when we engage in another community, but that we stretch ourselves. If we accept some basic truths—that we all come from the knowledge, power, and love of one guiding Spirit or God, whatever we call him or her or them—then we are free to look with open hearts and open minds into the lived Truth of those outside our world. Let us sit, like a neophytic child, on the church floor and play with our toys until something strikes us. Let us roll around on the carpeted expanse of the temple until the gong of the bell and the cadence of Sanskrit draws us is. Let us be as we were somehow, some way meant to be: children of a same God.