Even when David and Katie were small they attended the main service with me. They got tired, fidgeted, and were, well … small. But on the whole they attended to the service — and more so than I realized.
They held the hymnal and follow along — sort of, because they were only just starting to read words, let alone music. But they wanted to do what I was doing, and I wanted them to do it too, so we did.
In one service, as we began to sing, an older man in our parish rumbled into the song from the choir loft directly above and behind where we stood. Katie looked up.
“Is that God?” she whispered.
Several years ago some Milwaukee salesmen went to a convention in Chicago. They told their wives they’d be home in plenty of time for dinner.
With one thing or another, the meeting ran late so they raced to the train station, tickets in hand. As they barraged through the terminal, one man inadvertently kicked over a table supporting a basket of apples.
Without stopping, they all reached the train and boarded it with a sigh of relief. All but one. He stopped, waved goodbye, and returned to the terminal — and the boy’s overturned apple stand.
He gathered up the apples noticing two things: several were bruised from hitting the ground, and the boy was blind.
He reached into his wallet. “Here, please take this for the damage we did. I hope it didn’t ruin your day.”
As he started to walk away the bewildered boy looked up and called after him, “Are you Jesus?”
— From Storytelling: Imagination and Faith, by William Bausch
An eight-year-old boy with a younger sister dying of leukemia was told that without a blood transfusion, she would die. His parents explained if his blood was compatible, he could be the donor.
They asked to test his blood. He said OK. It was a match. Then they asked if he would give his sister a pint of his blood — that it could be her only chance at life.
He said he’d have to think about it overnight.
The next day he told his parents he was willing to donate his blood. At the hospital he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of his blood, and put it in the girl’s IV.
The boy lay on his gurney in silence as the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor stopped to check on him.
Then he looked up and said, “How soon ‘til I start to die?”
— From Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
Finally, Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry tells about a day with his granddaughter, also named Katie, that involved nothing more (we say) than spreading a load of dirt on the floor of a barn. Bitterly cold, Berry guided the wagon home, and attributed Katie’s silence to her being dissatisfied with the day, the weather — perhaps with granddad.
Until she looked up at him and said, “Wendell, isn’t this fun?”
What these stories have in common — besides that you may have heard some of them before — is a child who so deeply believes something that it’s part of his or her evaluation of events. It is, we say, second nature … it may even be ‘first’ nature.
Katie thought God was someone who sings along with us in church — and better than any of us. Some boys think Jesus can walk up to them and talk, and would do so even if He missed a train. Others are willing to die for a little sister. Berry’s granddaughter believes fun — live, true fun, not just “entertainment” — is cold dirt on cold ground in a cold wagon on a cold day … as long as you’re next to a warm granddad.
Each story also involves children looking up to an adult, wondering what we will say or do next.
It jars us, if it does, because we can’t always see what they’re looking at. If it doesn’t jar us, maybe we’ve heard that particular story too many times — or perhaps not enough.
We know — we just know — God isn’t in the choir loft, that little boys often get their facts wrong, and that dirt is … dirt.
I’m not romanticizing this or them. Kids get tons of things wrong and one reason I can discuss their stories at all is that I’ve grown up enough to understand them.
But I fear what I’ve lost, and sometimes think I’ll never see it again — if not to live in each minute, then at least to see and believe in. I’ve put away childish things. But is this one of them?
They want to kiss you, even when their fingers and faces are mucky with melted marshmallow, because they know cleanliness isn’t next to godliness, but love is.
For us, old and jaded and old, it’s a dream for which we have forgotten the words. We must get it back.
It’s true and good and beautiful and real. Children know this, and they speak and act and live accordingly.
[nota bene added 17 December … And so it goes — this morning, my younger daughter Sophie told how her class had recently seen a live manger scene. “Isaiah was there,“ she said. “But not the real one.“ How did you know he wasn’t the real one? “He was young,“ she said. “And he was saying my memory verse.“]