Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3
In words that still have the power to shock after all these years, Jesus asserted that if we do not change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ teaching was unequivocal. He said, “Never.” His words are far removed from Paul’s oft-quoted words, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). What childish ways could Jesus have had in mind that were requisite for entering the kingdom?
Jesus often drew his teachings from his scriptures, and this one is no exception. The people of Israel had two traditions for acquiring wisdom. One Israelite tradition, the dominant one, held that wisdom came with the experience of years and that the elders bore the responsibility of codifying and passing it on to children. In essence, the book of Proverbs was their curriculum. The other tradition held that wisdom resided in children who saw the world afresh and often had a keener sense of God’s presence and purposes than their elders.
These two traditions seem at first blush to contradict each other, but a closer examination of the wisdom tradition shows that they do not. Wisdom is no respecter of age, nor is foolishness. The people of Israel told many stories about the foolishness of their elders–their prophets, priests, and kings–and how their poor judgment brought death and destruction upon innocent people; they also told stories about children who were attuned to God, understood the purposes of God, and had the courage to act in the name of God.
It was the boy Joseph whom God visited with dreams of the coming famine and whose love and integrity in the face of the betrayal of his brothers saved his family and the surrounding nations from starvation. It was the boy Samuel who heard God calling him in the night, and it was the elder Eli who failed to recognize the voice of God, a dramatic reversal of roles. It was the boy David who was fearless in the face of a giant with gigantic weapons while his older brothers and King Saul were incapacitated by fear. It was the boy Jeremiah to whom God appeared and anointed to be a prophet. Against his protestations, God said to Jeremiah: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (1:7)
Toward the end of the book Ecclesiastes, the sage challenged the popular understanding that wisdom resided in the elderly. He said, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth before the evil days come and the years draw nigh, when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (12:1).
In this well-known essay on vanity, the sage suggested that childhood is both fleeting and precious, a time of closeness with God that soon passes. He described the “golden years” as a diminished state in which aging has exacted a heavy toll. Those advanced in years lose their teeth as well as their hearing and vision. Their bodies shake, and their backs are bent over. They lose their mobility, and the doors to the wider world close. The sage depicts old age as a time of sleeplessness, funeral processions, night terrors, and the loss of desire, the very will to live. In short, old age is a time in which elders forget someone whom they knew so well in their youth, their Creator.
Throughout scripture, we find a tradition in which children often see more clearly, love more dearly, and follow God more nearly than adults do. Jesus drew from this tradition when he told his disciples that they needed to become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven.
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Based on their work with clients, many psychotherapists suggest that each stage of life affords us experiences that must be acknowledged and integrated into our consciousness for our hearts to be at peace and joy-filled. None of our experiences in life are lost; all are taken up into our consciousness, what the Bible sometimes calls “heart” and other times “soul.” Whether we remember them or not, these experiences congeal in our hearts and form the energetic core out of which attitudes, thoughts, and actions flare forth. They can motivate us to follow what Moses called the “way of life” or the “way of death” (Dt. 15:15-20).
Childhood is an especially important stage in our development. Childhood experiences of trust and mistrust, confidence and shame, and joy and sadness are primary, and they predispose us to think and act in certain ways. These experiences are always with us. To emphasize this fact, therapists say things like “adults are large children” and that healthy adults need to acknowledge the “child within.”
The field of psychotherapy may also shed some light on what Jesus meant when he said we need to become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. As children, we had a different relationship to the world than we do as adults. Our birth was a moment of creation, and our childhood was a walk through an Edenic world all aglitter and ablaze with energy. Our senses were keen, and our hearts were open. We delighted in the profligate and fecund world: the flight of the dragonfly, the fierceness of the hawk, the oddness of the mushroom, the sweetness of the peach. We were both fascinated and frightened by the power of storms, and we wondered about invisible powers as we saw lightning flash and heard thunder roll. We took in the shapes, textures, tastes, and colors of our world so deeply that we felt intimately connected to it. The natural order was our first school of theology, whispering in our ears that God was near and that God was good.
As we grow older, however, the world no longer glitters so brightly and blazes so intensely. The sun rises and sets over weeks and then years. As patterns in nature repeat themselves, routines in daily living become fixed. We touch the truth of what the sage in Ecclesiastes said long ago: “There is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). When we reach old age, when our senses fail, when we sit all day in our La-Z-Boy recliners, we eventually lose contact with the world of wonders.
When Jesus says that we need to become like children to enter the kingdom, he is saying that we have to acknowledge the “child within,” and return to those days when when our hearts were more open to the natural world and to God.
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Jesus said that we needed to become like children for a specific purpose, namely, to enter the kingdom of heaven.
This heavenly kingdom that Jesus proclaimed was not some disembodied realm in the sky but the glorification of the created order that God intended from the beginning. Matthew made clear that Jesus came to fulfill the hope of the people of Israel, the hope that the world be made full of the glory and love of God. He recorded a number of parables in which Jesus expressed what he understood the heavenly kingdom to be. Particularly poignant is this one:
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:31-32).”
In this parable Jesus depicts God as a sower and the earth as the field. The heavenly kingdom begins as a seed in our good earth, very small and seemingly insignificant but carrying within it great potential for growth. Over time it does grow, and its branches spread. It grows exponentially so that what was once a mustard shrub becomes a great tree–with Genesis 2 in mind we could call it the “Tree of Life,” or with Susan Simard in mind, the “mother tree.”
Then Jesus adds something to the image of great significance: the birds of the heavens nest in its branches. Jesus is saying that in our life together we are to be a tree of life. We are to live in such a way that our faith, hope, and love express themselves in commitments and actions that create space for the flourishing of others. And by “others,” he means not just people but flora and fauna as well.
The mark of the heavenly kingdom, and by implication the mark of the true church, is to create space for the flourishing of others, not occupy space in such a way that others are driven away. I cannot imagine a more powerful mission statement for the church than this, and, given our current economic arrangements, I cannot imagine a more countercultural one.
We are not moving to a time in which we are joining Jesus in establishing a heavenly kingdom, creating space in our life together for each other and other creatures. We are moving to a time in which we are establishing a hellish kingdom, a time in which we are invading the space of others and upsetting the delicate balance of life. The invasion is leading to catastrophic and conflagrative results. According to a report in a recent issue of The Christian Century, in July, 2023, the heat index in Iran reached 153 degrees, Phoenix, Arizona, reached a temperature of 110 degrees 20 days in a row, and in the Florida Keys the ocean temperature reached 95 degrees. The oceans are reaching the temperature of hot tubs and boiling the coral reefs; the blacktop on our streets is so hot that people who stumble need to be treated for third-degree burns. The forests around the world are burning and this summer wildfire smoke drove millions of people indoors for days on end.
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I have expended much time and energy trying to convince believers in our Reformed community that they need to acknowledge the fact of environmental degradation and to respond accordingly. During a presentation in a seminary setting or a retreat in a sylvan setting, I would show how the people of Israel did not see the natural world as raw material for manufacturing and marketing but a cornucopia whose God-breathed natural systems produced the air, the water, and the food that sustained them. For the people of Israel, every breath, every drink, and every meal was a measure of the breath of God, a sacrament.
In my presentation, I would review what the Reformed tradition had to say about the natural world, pointing out, for example, how important the image of “hand” is in the Heidelberg Catechism. God is not some distant Sovereign but a Father whose hand is in constant touch with the world and holds us close throughout our lives, in both good times and bad times. It is this touch that brings us comfort and affirms that we are not alone or on our own but belong to our faithful savior.
I would review the Belgic Confession and show how historically Reformed believers saw the created order as a book of revelation, each individual plant and animal letters in this book, and I would show how John Calvin throughout his writings invited his readers to see the natural world as the theater of God’s glory.
After reviewing the biblical and Reformed understandings of the natural world, I would pass on the alarming facts of consumptive economics, climate change, and species extinction.
I would pass on all this information, but there was often little response. Believers would grant the fact that the environment is changing, even that the change was human induced. How could they not? They experienced this change in their everyday lives. In the spring, for example, we in West Michigan wonder whether all the tulips that grace the streets of Holland will be spent by mid-May and accept the fact that the organizers of Tulip Time will soon need to hold the festival earlier in May or even late April. In the fall, we see that the forests around us are changing. The sugar maples, with their fiery palette of reds and oranges, are slowly disappearing, and we now hike through forests of mostly browns and yellows. We live in a world that is losing its color.
Most believers do not dispute the fact of climate change, they just do not feel the urgency to do anything about it. I have found that I can touch believers’ heads, but I cannot touch their hearts. I can perhaps make them think about what is happening in the natural world, but I cannot make them care about it. And this is the reason for the faint-hearted response to the environmental collapse: As adults, we do not love the world as we did when we were children, and, as we all know, we will not defend and sacrifice for things we do not love. At best, the natural world is on the perimeter of our circle of care. The flora and fauna of the world are certainly not family, nor even friends. Perhaps they are acquaintances, most likely strangers.
While leading a retreat on Caring for Creation a few years ago, I sensed once again that all the information I was passing on was having little effect, so I stopped mid-lecture. I was frustrated and could not think of anything else to say. There was an awkward silence, and suddenly, a memory flashed in my consciousness. I said: “I want to tell you a story,” and proceeded to tell them a version of this:
I grew up in a newly plotted suburb on the northeast side of the city of Grand Rapids. Not far from my house was the remnant of the original woods, complete with meadows, a pond, and a creek. When I think back on my boyhood, all that I seem to remember is that woods, a wonderland of pollywogs, frogs, turtles, butterflies, snakes, and birds.
On a ridge above a section of the creek was a stand of beech trees forming a rectangle, their silver trunks like pillars and their leafy branches like a ribbed vault. I would take my troubles to that place: my hurt, sadness, anger, and guilt, and slowly my heart would be soothed and find rest. As a boy the natural world was my cathedral. I felt a comforting presence in that place and knew that God was somehow manifest there.
When I finished telling this story, all was quiet for a few moments. I was about to resume my presentation, when an older woman spoke up. She said: “I have a story to tell. When I was a girl I would go to my grandmother’s house in the summer. In her backyard was what we called a climbing tree. I think it was an oak tree. You could easily climb its branches and part way up five branches fanned out from the trunk and formed a cradle. I used to sit in that cradle in the evenings and watch the sunset through the leafy canopy. I felt held by God there and comforted. I have not thought about that for years.”
For the next hour, people shared stories from their childhood of places in the natural world that had been spiritually significant to them. Many of the stories were about trees; others were about a trail through the woods, a mountain top view of a valley, swimming in a lake and feeling its cleansing power, or fishing with a grandfather.
Now when I lead retreats on Creation Care, I invite retreatants to tell stories from childhood about their experiences in the natural world. With just a little prompting, the stories always come. I have found that many people have a story of a profound spiritual experience in the natural world, a story long forgotten. For a brief time, retreatants become like children. They rediscover their love of nature, and all of us together begin to explore how we can integrate this love into our adult lives.
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A few weeks ago I returned to my cathedral in the woods. I had not been there in sixty years and wondered whether I could even find it. I did, and to my surprise it all looked very much the same. I thought the beech trees would be monstrous by now, but they were roughly the size that I remembered them. When I looked upward I saw why. Giant oak and beech trees dominated the overstory, and my beech trees were what some arborists call “ladies in waiting.” They were waiting for some break in the canopy above them in order to take off skyward.
Sitting there in my cathedral, the adult and child in me were having an encounter. The adult me was overwhelmed by the rapidity and extent of the despoiling of the natural world and filled with anxiety about the future for my children, grandchildren, and the human community. The adult in me was filled with despair that the hope that anchored the Christian community, the hope that in the presence of God all ends well, was not true.
The child in me was calm like a bird nesting and was taking in the love of God that had created this space. The child in me looked up to the sunlight filtering through the leaves and realized that these leaves were for the healing of the people of God.
This moment captured what Jesus might have meant when he said that we need to become like children to enter the kingdom. I need the child in me; I need to know what the child knew in order to face my anxiety and despair. I need access to times in which I experienced the presence of God in order to carry me through the times in which I experience the absence of God. I need to rekindle my love for the natural world in order to have the courage to act to preserve what remains of the created order.