Angels with dirty faces


Wednesday, July 1st

Willow Den social time


Children can be little angels who can melt a grandparent with a look or – before lockdown – a hug. But let’s not forget that most of them are capable of being little monsters at certain times. Looking at a passage in Matthew 11:16-19, Jesus seems well aware of that as he compares his critics responses to both John the Baptist and his own lifestyles as like that of children who are annoyed that other children won’t toe the line and behave according to the rules they have invented. Even so, Jesus goes on to reflect that children have special access to insights of heavenly truth not granted to the learned and wise. What exactly was Jesus getting at?

Perhaps we have to go to the additional text here in the phrase ‘wisdom is proved right by her deeds’ to find the answer. Ivan Illich, an Austrian Catholic priest and original social thinker wrote a book called, De-schooling Society. One of his hobby horses was that the best thing any child could be equipped with was what he called a 'crap detector' - that is, a set of skills that would enable one to see through nonsense. For our more refined ears, let’s call it a ‘rubbish sensor.’

What Illich meant was that whatever parents, teachers or other adults are trying to teach children, a child’s own acid test would be: By their deeds shall you know them! In other words, if a child is told that God is a loving father, for instance, but their experience is that fathers are unloving or cruel in their experience, or even worse – their teachers are guilty of abusing them – their detectors will be flashing a signal, Rubbish!

My experience of Sunday School as a youngster was of a teacher called Joyce, who taught us as much by how she cared for us as by anything she told us about Jesus. Consequently, it all rang true for me. And being blessed with a loving home as well, any claims that God loved me like a good parent never triggered my rubbish sensors. Yet I wonder what I would have thought if I had been a pupil in the Sunday Schools or Ragged Schools of the early 1800s where the ethos was as much a fear of failing to toe the line as it was of responding to the love of God. It has been said that hell fire is the central heating of the church. The threat of eternal damnation was as much a feature of many lessons and sermons as was God’s loving kindness. How would my rubbish sensors have reacted to all that?

In a nineteenth century tract entitled, Ten Reasons Why I Love to Go to My Sunday School, Reason 2 states: because I shall get no good by spending the time in idleness and play. Indeed, the printed rules of many Sunday Schools required that ‘all students come to school clean, washed and combed at the appointed time.’ That might explain an odd phrase my mother used to say: ‘dirty knees and don’t love Jesus’. She didn’t mean it, but I wonder whether it was a leftover of that earlier era where schooling generally was as much about social control than it was social education. I prefer to see angels with dirty faces who know how to love and be loved.

I doubt that the children Jesus welcomed in Mark Chapter 10 were clean, washed and combed. And I doubt he cared. And they must have found him attractive enough to want to be around him or their rubbish sensors would have told them to steer clear – as they might have done if they saw a religious leader coming down the street. Wasn’t that the difference with Jesus – he spoke with authority and not as the scribes – his deeds were equal to his words. On that occasion, too, Jesus said, unless you accept the Kingdom as a child would, you cannot enter.

In that piece of Mark’s narrative, the next encounter was with a man with some wealth, who Jesus responded to in love. He was obviously a religiously upright man. However, Jesus talked with him and found his weak spot. He couldn’t give up the security of his wealth and risk following Jesus. He had lost that childhood ability to trust and follow his newly presented treasure. Too much to lose. Life must have taught him to find his security in a good education and business acumen. Does that sound familiar?

‘Get a good education and a good degree and you are guaranteed a well-paid job.’ Tell that to those postgraduates who have had to resort to working behind a bar – when the bars were open, that is. It sends my rubbish sensors through the roof hearing that. I am grateful for my ability to do mental arithmetic and also write complete sentences. They are skills which come in handy. But I wouldn’t be without the ability to relate lovingly to family and friends, to cook a poached egg at Shiregreen’s social Café Valentine, and feel angry about the unjust treatment of many women, black people, refugees. I didn’t learn those skills at my Dickensian-styled Boys Grammar School. I learned them at home and from people like Joyce and many friends since then across the world.

To embrace the love of Jesus requires that childhood ability to respond unconditionally to God’s unconditional love. That ability will not be lost with lost school hours. It does get lost through our investment in personal securities which avoid risk and hurt as we grow older, if not wiser. It means we find it so much more difficult to accept Jesus’ challenge to be willing to give up everything to possess the Pearl of Great Price.

A child once gave me a fresh insight into that parable which is at the heart of the gospel in my view. He was part of a group being told the parable of the pearl merchant who found a pearl so precious, he sold absolutely everything else he owned in order to possess it for himself. The story was told through the process of what is called Godly Play, where, at the end of the story the question is asked, I wonder what the pearl really is?

My response would have been, ‘well, it’s Jesus and his love.’ That’s what I’d been taught and I’d never questioned that interpretation. But this little lad had immersed himself in the story and, as a child, used his own imagination to conclude – the pearl is me! I think he saw Jesus as the Pearl Merchant who had found him and loved him so much that Jesus was prepared to give up everything for love of him. He had arrived at the same essential truth of God’s love for him, but through his own imagination and without the formal interpretation I was given. Both versions valid, but he owned his for himself.

Give children the paints and brushes of love and acceptance and forgiveness and a sense of worth and they will find the clues in the parables and other Gospel stories without us painting the picture for them as we perceive it. Let them own their own picture by giving them the skills to paint for themselves with freshness and imagination. For of such is the kingdom…

Maybe we can find a freshness and a new perspective on the Gospel if we can rediscover the child in each of us – with imagination and an appetite for discovery and with no fear of wandering into new adventures, regardless of the risk. Is that what Jesus meant? I wonder…


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