I can’t remember the last time I used a glue stick, but I was hoping that my kindergarten-aged daughter was having better luck across town at school. Struggling through the most basic task, I tried to envision the last time a glue stick appeared on a school supply list for me (I couldn’t). I tried to recall the last time I had a school supply list (I couldn’t), although maybe the books for seminary count.
The purpose of my less-than-masterpiece was a display for the children of the church who are learning about communion — the Lord’s Supper. The content and the execution of my project were appropriate to kindergartners, meaning it probably would have been wise to ask them for help on the front end. In truth, I think they will be helpful all the way through, even as I try to teach them.
Children have the amazing gift of clarity. When her mother asks our daughter why she wants to wear red shorts with a red shirt, the answer is simple: they match. When asked why she’s not eating her dinner, it’s because she’s saving room for dessert. It’s this kind of directness and perception that makes children wonderful theologians.
This means teaching communion, a flashpoint for real theological division through the centuries, and also an unsolvable mystery, should take about half an hour. Although the theological disputes of denominations depicting communion through the history-laden and theologically haunted phrases of transubstantiation, consubstantiation and real presence, the children will grasp the matter quickly, and understand the symbolism without a fight: God loves us; God feeds us; God gives us bread to share. If only it were so easy with the rest of us.
We think we’re clever when we have some kind of understanding of God confined in a neat doctrine. (This isn’t to say doctrine is bad. Doctrine is necessary and important. It is what the church believes about God. But it has limits. Augustine warns that trying to grasp God perfectly through our theological concepts is like trying to grasp water.)
Jesus put it a different way when a couple of disciples, maybe thinking they were clever, asked Jesus about greatness. He called a child forward to him and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” (Matthew 18:3-5). Is it because of their directness? Clarity? Innocence? The story is meant to be about humility — maybe something about the honest, genuine curiosity that animates children, that animates life with God.
As if to underscore the point, in the next chapter, Jesus reiterates something similar: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14).
I see them every day as I drive my daughter to school. “It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” While the parents are busy with the bloodsport of navigating the carpool line, the children greet one another with smiles and hugs. They say hello to their teachers. They skip, they run, they hold hands. The parents peel away in their cars, off to work and the grownup world that has left these things behind. I wonder: which way do the wise go?
The real world, the adult world, the world of work, often contains the serious business of life: buying and selling, making a living, enforcing the law, battling illness — of paying taxes and voting and arguing. This is where the clever and powerful jockey for greatness. The children keep learning so they can make it here.
I come home and am cleaning out my daughter’s lunch box.
“Where did this chip bag come from?”
“Someone gave it to me?”
“Did you trade?”
“Yes. I shared some of my sandwich, my cheese stick and my cookie. I got chips and apple slices.”
“Do you trade often?”
“It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
I think they understand communion already. Maybe they can teach me how to use the glue stick.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.