On a child’s level, the general chaos of the world increases.
Take a supermaket. My youngest, O, stands level with the conveyor ramp. Down at his eye level, everything changes. Here on the same plane as knees and thighs and crotches, you feel the sudden ugliness of the world.
At three feet, you know most of the business of the world is conducted over your head.
At a checkout stand, O walks a narrow corridor walls above his head, and even the credit card payment screen high above his line of sight. It suddenly makes sense why a child will whine or raise their voice to be heard. What other persuasive asset do they have?
O is far from powerful. When he’s noticed, even the most well-meaning adult can be patronizing. Children receive praise for being quiet, looking cute, and receiving all our issues without complaint. One time a security guard offered O a sticker,
“I know Santa,” the guard said importantly. “And if you eat all your food, I’ll tell Santa you’ve been a good boy.” And he winked at me as he laid down a shiny sticker.
O is only five, but he still looked at me dubiously. Is this really how it works?
Sadly yes, sweetheart, this is how the broken world runs. You follow a rule to impress security guards who are part of Santa’s good ol’ boys club. Then, you get presents. But it doesn’t really scan for O.
A child is not an idiot. And a child is not a cute distraction or a blank slate. One of the hardest compliments for me, still, to swallow is “Cute” (especially when people call my painting cute 🙄).
It’s hard to imagine Jesus ever calling a child “cute”. When Jesus said, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” he tipped his hand (Matthew 18:3).
Jesus knew children receive their limitations.
A child sees the world very accurately. O knows he is limited in stature, in power, in wisdom, in knowledge. His ten-year-old brother can out-smart him any day of the week. O doesn’t have a say about wearing that mask at the Farmer’s Market. He knows he cannot navigate a grocery store, a freeway, or a doctor’s office by himself. And since children haven’t learned self-justification, their humility out-flanks mine every day. You won’t ever hear a five-year-old say,
“I’m just eating 50 jellybeans to take the edge off.”
O knows he is a created little boy who needs help.
At the Farmer’s Market, O knows he cannot reach the green beans on the upper shelves. For those, he needs his mother or father to lift him up. But, he can reach the plums on the lower shelf. And he, rightly, glories in that power, asking me to step back to let him fill his plastic bag all by himself.
“Whoever then humbles himself like this little child, she is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).
I have power, just like O. I can discern things and connect ideas and paint watercolors, these are the plums within my reach. But I cannot help or mend the problems inside of others. I cannot mend the problems in my own heart. I am a mere human being. I need my Father to lift me up for most of my work in this world. The Psalmist put it another way
Unless the Lord keep watch on the city, the watchmen keep watch in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors;
For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.” (Psalm 127:1-2)
In these last years of closing Soulation and watching our field of influence contract and condense, it’s easy to wonder what power I really have. According to Jesus, not much.
I can reach this bottom shelf. I have plums to pick. And that is still a gift. I want to pick carefully, to cradle the fruit, to lower it into the bag without bruising, to carry the bag with strength over to my Father who will show me what these plums will do.
A child knows that everything around him is a gift. But as he grows, he begins to hear the siren’s call that we can help, heal, and change almost anything, if we want it badly enough. We can fix racism by posting hashtags. No, my friend, that is a siren’s call. Real work against racism is never flashy or popular, it never becomes a frame on Facebook or a button on Instagram or a black and white sign on our front lawn.
Humility is where healing anything (racism, generational shame, lust, sloth, addiction) always begins. How beautiful to return to the willing and grateful dependency of a child. Because without God, there’s no way to change anyone. He plugs us into reality, to who we are, what the world needs, and where we fit into building hope.
Humility always leaves me with more questions, of course. Have you listened to a child’s list of questions. Why do we need plums? Why not the candy? What about the top shelf? That’s the better stuff! My brother doesn’t like plums, so why are we doing this? Picking plums is what the humble do, even if they don’t know exactly how this fits into the great causes of our day. Picking plums may be preparation for something greater, or not. It may simply be ripe, juicy fun for eatin’.
Humility helps us find the Good Father, and trace his hands in all that has happened to us. Because if he wants us to have a handful of green beans from the top shelf, no powers that exist on heaven or earth can keep those greens away from us.
And so we learn, as my O is learning, how we are the greatest enemy to enjoying our humility. Being human means relishing our humble place, a created, small place. The very similarity of the words show us the way: human, humility, humus, Latin for “the ground”. Just like children, we are close to the ground.
Without humility we cannot embrace our thimble of power, which is enough, big enough to pick a pile of plums. All those spheres of shiny purple, ours for the taking.
After all, isn’t a bag full of plums enough?