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It’s that time of year again: When children go back to school, teachers and support staff go back to work, and parents go back to juggling car pools and work schedules, making lunches and nagging about homework.
It’s that time of year when many older children go off to college, filling their parents’ aching hearts with a combination of pride, joy, pain, emptiness, and worry.
It’s that time of year when big yellow school buses are back on the roads—which is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of cars that bring Amherst traffic to a standstill for a few days, or the crush of college students buying sheets and towels in Target, or the clot of young women standing three deep in Whole Foods trying to decide which of 20 different yogurts to buy
It’s that time of year when liquor stores do a booming business, and most of us know better than to even think of going to Trader Joe’s.
It’s that time of year when our Facebook feeds and Instagram accounts are filled with first-day-of-school photos: kids holding hand-lettered signs declaring their grade, children and teens and young people wearing expressions that range from smiles to snarls to shrugs.
It’s that time of year when, after the excitement of leaving home for college (or grad school or seminary) wears off, homesickness may start to sink in; when the giddiness of life without parental supervision meets the overwhelming reality of four different course syllabi calling for 20-page papers due all on the same day.
It’s that time of year when those of us who are long past our school days may get swept up in a wave of nostalgia: recalling the smells of No. 2 pencils and Elmer’s glue, remembering the hopeful expansiveness of September’s fresh starts, longing for the feeling that our whole, long lives were ahead of us and anything was possible, trying to remember what it felt like to walk through the world wide-eyed, to greet every day with a sense of wonder.
It’s that time of year when we recognize one of life’s great paradoxes: That for all our childhood desires to grow up, there comes a grown-up day when we would give all most anything to be a child again.
I can’t help but wonder if poor, mean, messed-up Jacob had arrived at that place. He had thought he was so smart. After many years of deep discontent with his status as Isaac’s second-born son, after many years of burning resentment of his twin but older brother Esau, Jacob had devised a plan to get what he believed was rightfully his. He deceived his own father, cheated his own brother, stole his father’s blessing, and took his brother’s inheritance. He was feeling pretty proud of himself, pretty grown-up and important.
But it turns out he wasn’t so mature after all. He was more cunning than wise. He hadn’t thought through the consequences of his actions. He hadn’t considered that his brother would set out to kill him for what he had done. And suddenly he found himself not the head of his family but a fugitive, not a man on top of the world but a victim of his own vices.
Instead of basking in his mother’s love, he had become an outcast on the run. Instead of living it up, bouncing from party to party with a passel of friends, he was all alone and longing for the security of home. Instead of reveling in his stolen riches, his every need met, he found himself in the dark in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a stone for a pillow.
Now this may not seem like very inspiring fodder for a weekend-long youth and family retreat. But this is a Bible story, so of course it does not end with Jacob suffering the consequences of his horrible behavior.
Because it is a Bible story, God shows up. And because God shows up, grace shows up. And because grace shows up, blessing shows up. And because blessing shows up, Jacob’s eyes are opened to the wonder of his life and his heart is opened to recognize the Holy even in the wilderness.
And all of that does make pretty inspiring fodder for a youth and family retreat. And so it was that a few years ago at Craigville, we focused on the story of Jacob at Bethel, all angels and awesomeness and a pretty spectacular promise from God. After an opening night play in which the children acted out story, after we built and blessed a stone cairn in the lodge, after lots of reminders of awesomeness and God’s presence, we gathered on the beach that Sunday morning for our closing worship service.
Kids, worship, beach—what had I been thinking? The sun was shining. The waves were rolling in. The distractions were legion. Virtually all the kids were busy with shovels and buckets and sand. Brendon Tolles, who was eight at the time, was sitting with his back to me and clearly—or so I thought—not paying attention.
Not to be deterred, I told again the story of Jacob and his pillow and his dream. The ladder and the stone pillar. And when I got to the part where God stands beside Jacob and speaks to him, I asked the beached congregation: “And what did God tell Jacob?”
Because that is, after all, the point of the whole story. The reminder that, no matter how badly we’ve behaved or how far we have wandered, God loves us. The assurance that while family and friends may abandon us, God never will. The declaration that even when we feel lost, even when we don’t know what to major in or fear that our lives won’t add up to anything, God has great plans for us—plans for healing, wholeness, abundance, and relevance. God’s promise and presence is, after all, one of the greatest gifts of our lives.
My question hung in the air for what seemed to me like full minutes. Sunshine diamonds danced across the water. Seagulls squawked overhead. But Brendon, who was still facing the opposite direction and digging in the sand, did not miss a beat. In a voice clear and strong and sure, he spoke the words of scripture almost verbatim:
I am with you and I will be with you wherever you go. I will bring you back home and I will stay with you until I keep all my promises.
That was neither the first time nor the last time a child’s spirituality has blown me away. It was neither the first nor the last time I have experienced children as pure, innocent, trusting sponges—learning all the time and taking in everything we show them and say to them. It was not the first time I have resolved to speak nothing but promise, to show them nothing but love. And yet, years later now, that moment on the beach when a child spoke God’s promise remains one of the clearest, most dramatic demonstrations I know of the openness, impressionability, vulnerability, directness, and simplicity of children—and of the ever-present, still-speaking, unbelievably wide and tall and deep love of God.
So when Jesus says, “Let the children come to me,” I think of our precious little ones and all that they need, all they depend on us for, all the love they deserve. I imagine Jesus down on his knees, his arms open wide, the little children running to him.
When Jesus says, “Do not stop them,” I recommit myself to making sure that we as a church don’t let our sophisticated, grown-up theology get in the way between our children and their experience of God’s goodness and the awesome wonderfulness of the world. I recommit myself to letting them know early and often that the God who made them and loves them is in this place and every place. I commit to trying to love them as God does.
And when Jesus says it is to the childlike that the realm of God belongs, I am reminded of the little child who still lives in me. When Jesus says that whoever does not receive God’s upside-down, last-will-be-first, lost-will-be-found, oppressed-will-receive-justice realm as a little child—which is to say with openness and trust, like a delighted little sponge—will never receive it, I call on my inner child.
Come on, I say. Gather up your new clothes and your backpack. Muster up all the excitement you can, and get ready for an adventure. Know that, however scary the road ahead, God is with you and will never leave you. It’s time to go back to God. It’s time to learn and receive and rejoice.
It’s that time of year!
Surely God is in this place—wherever we are—and we just forgot. How awesome is this place! Surely this world we are walking through is none other than the house of God; these lives we are living are the gates of heaven.
Thanks be to God!