"Quit Being So Adultish"
1 John 3:1-3
When I was at the church up in Hickman, Nebraska, some kids were playing in the church. Their moms were getting things set up for Vacation Bible School. The kids were in and out of my office, grabbing root beer candies, drawing on my whiteboard, typing stuff on my computer while I was trying to write my sermon (I just left the stuff on there that they typed, so it would remind me of that day and what it means to be a kid).
They asked if I'd turn on the microphones in the sanctuary so they could sing. I said, "Sure." I didn't think twice. After a few minutes of their singing, the secretary came storming into my office, and said with a slight smile on her face, "Why are you letting them do that!? You know why? Because you're just a kid like they are!"
It was one of the best compliments I've ever received. I'm hoping she meant it as such. I am a big kid. I wanna be a big kid. I wanna play and have fun in life. Walt Disney said that he took it as a compliment that people said he had "not quite grown up." So I'm in good company. It’s part of who I am.
The believers John was writing to must have been confused about who they were. It is kind of confusing, isn’t it, to know who we are as Christians. It’s kind of sad that it’s so unclear. There are so many “brands” of Christians. It’s always been that way. I’m not talking about denominations either. I’m talking about all the little and large subgroups of Christians who say you have to believe this or that to be a “true” Christian. Or, in order to be an authentic Christian, you have to act a certain way, or vote a certain way, or believe a certain way.
There are charismatics. There are contemplative or monastic Christians. There are evangelicals. There are orthodox. There are those who are spiritual but not religious. There are liturgical Christians. There are even Christians who don’t call themselves Christian. And on and on.
What is a congregation supposed to do if it has within itself, several of these different kinds of Christians who define themselves very differently?
It’s been a problem for a very long time. Since the beginning of the Christian church. When John wrote his letters, there were Gnostic Christians who believed that Jesus didn’t have a body. They believed that anything physical, or that had to do with this world was tainted and evil. Only the spiritual was real.
And there were Jewish Christians who said you have to follow all the Jewish laws in order to be a Christian. You had to follow Jewish dietary regulations and, if a male, be circumcised in order to be a true Christian. This group continues today under the classification of “Messianic Jews.”
How are we supposed to wade through all the self-definitions that Christians have used to try to figure out who we are and we’re supposed to be like?
I think it would be best to try to figure that out by how God sees us. That’s what John is telling the believers in this part of his letter: See yourself as God sees you and then live according to that. Don’t define yourself. It’s not up to you. It’s up to God. So, what does God say?
What God says, through this letter, is that God sees us as children. But not just children generally. God sees us as His children. We are God’s children. That, says John, is why people never pay any attention to us, or recognize who we are. That’s the way the world has always treated children, as invisible, unimportant, and powerless.
People hardly ever pay attention to children. Even parents give their second best (at best) to their own children. Study after study has shown that fathers in particular spend an average of just five minutes a day giving their children significant, undistracted attention. Children are supposed to be seen, not heard, as the axiom goes. Children are treated as unimportant, unintelligent, and unworthy by most societies—not just American society. Just look what happens when there’s a big family gathering. Where do the kids sit? And what’s the message those kids are getting by being segregated to the “kiddie table”?
Children, back when we were an agrarian society, contributed significantly to the family’s economy and well-being. That’s one of the reasons couples had large families—to help out with all that needed to be done on the farm.
Now, in our modern, enlightened, progressive, technological society, children aren’t looked to as significant contributors to anything. They are given no significant roles in the family that encourages their growth, self-esteem, or sense that they are really important to that family, or anyone in particular.
So, if God calls us children, and that’s what we are, if that’s how the world looks upon Christians, then it’s no wonder society doesn’t see the Christian gospel as having anything significant to say about life. If we are God’s children, but we presume children are non-contributors, then we take the next logical step in our thinking, and presume we must not mean that much to God. And what can children know, anyway? They don’t know about the adult realities of life.
That’s even how the disciples treated children. Mothers brought their children to see Jesus, to be blessed by him. What do the disciples say? “Shoo, shoo! You mothers keeps your snotty-nosed, bratty, bothersome kids away from the Master. He’s got better things to do than have to deal with your kids. So keep them back. Back ‘em up, back ‘em up!”
But notice what Jesus does. He gets irate. He blasts the disciples and says, “Don’t push these children away...These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom! Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in” (Mark 10:13ff). Jesus didn’t want the children to back away. Jesus said, “Bring ‘em on!”
Why does Jesus emphasize this important quality of childlikeness for discipleship so often? John did the same thing in his letters and in his gospel. Maybe one of the reasons is that children, for the most part, are the only ones who are comfortable being who they are. Children only know how to be one thing—children. They never worry about issues of self-definition. They are simply and beautifully comfortable being who and what they are—kids!
Watch how uninhibited children are at being children. Look at Evelyn. I love her spontaneity. I love how she sometimes runs the circuit around the pews during worship. How she comes up to me and pretends to shoot me and I fall back like she got me, and then she giggles. How many of you adults would run around the pews during worship? What happens to us?
Here’s another story from a number of years ago, when I was the pastor in Hickman, Nebraska. I had a meeting with a group of Presbyterian pastors in Lincoln. We were meeting at First Presbyterian Church in what they called, “The Great Hall.”
We were sitting around a huge set of square tables having a deeply ecclesiastical discussion of some kind or another. Good friends of mine, Steve and Kim Nofel (who were both pastors in a little town near the little town where I lived) were sitting next to me.
They had brought Chuck, who at the time was almost two years old. Chuck was running around the big empty part of the Great Hall as if the rest of us didn’t even exist. Chuck was enjoying his own two year old world. We pious and serious pastors were being held captive by the self-importance of our own discussion, which most assuredly must have been appropriate for the Great Hall.
All of a sudden, Chuck stopped running around and went, “pbbbbfffffffttttt!” Ron Bump, the soon to be retired pastor of Southern Heights Presbyterian Church in Lincoln was there. Now Ron, in my experience had always appeared to be a straight-laced, sober, and very Presbyterian kind of person. Ron rose up in his chair, after hearing Chuck let loose, and interrupted our discussion and said, “You know there are times in worship, or at meetings, I wish I could just go, ‘pbbbbfffffftttttt!’” We all broke out laughing, because we all knew exactly what he was saying.
What happens? When do we stop being a kid? Or when do we stop thinking being a child is not the right thing anymore? You know when it happens? It happens when we adults tell children that message. We adults, we grown-ups, we who certainly have it all together, we in our adultish sophistication, tell children to stop being so childish. After all, we learned it from our parents. It must be right. So we pass it on.
A little boy whispered to his father during church, "I have to go potty." So the father took him by the hand and quietly led his boy down the aisle. When they were almost to the back of the church, the little boy turned and shouted, "I'll be right back, God; I just have to go to the potty!"
Now we all laugh. Isn't that cute. How many of you adults would feel uninhibited enough to do that? Why isn't it just as cute for an adult to do such a thing? Well, an adult should know better. It's just not proper. Why is it proper, even cute, for a child to do such a thing? Well, they don't know any better. They haven't learned yet, so it's excusable.
Listen to those words: "...haven't learned yet..." Learned from who? And, learned what? Who gets to decide what's childish and what's adultish? Who gets to decide what's proper and improper for how a grown-up is supposed to act? Think about that. There is no rule book out there that says, This is childish, and, This is not childish. There is no person out there, whom we as society have given the power to decide what it is to act like a child and what it is to act like an adult.
But that’s not what God says. That’s not what Jesus told the disciples. “We’re children of God! That’s who we really are,” says John. We, as God’s children, are at the very center of the kingdom of God.
If we’re going to be comfortable with our identity as Christians, as that’s defined from God’s perspective, then we better become comfortable being a child and trusting God as our parent. To be free as a child is to be all that children are: sometimes flexible and adaptive, while at other times rigid and demanding; sometimes able to endure amazing trauma, while at other times whining about a nearly invisible scratch.
To be children means to know how to make a game out of any situation and have fun with life. Like the boy who was standing next to the escalator hand railing. His mother, who was nearby browsing, called him over to stand closer to her, and he yelled back, “Just a minute; I’m waiting for my gum to come back around.”
To be a child is to live life in an unselfconscious and uninhibited way. The reason children can live so unselfconscious is because they have absolute trust in their parents. The same thing happens spiritually. If we have absolute trust in our Father God, then we can be totally free as a child of God.
Also, as adults, we worry so much what others think about us, how we dress, how we behave, etc. etc. Alan Luttrell has what he calls the “18-40-60 rule.” At age 18 life is about you and the mirror. It’s about how you worry all the time about how you look, dress, etc. The worry comes from what you think people are thinking about you. At age 40 you come to decide that you don’t really care what others think about you. At age 60 you finally figure out that other people were never really thinking about you at all.
Why can’t we get to that age 60 kind of thinking at an earlier age? Why can’t we be like children? Because, children just are. They are content with who they are as children. Each day is a new adventure. And again, the reason that is all true is because of the absolute trust and confidence they have in their parents. And for we believers, that means our absolute trust in the Father God.
Ellen Cantrow once wrote in a newspaper column,
Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body.
I like that, especially when I think of our relationship to God as our parent and we as God’s children. As God’s children, we are a piece of God’s heart walking around outside God’s being. It gives me a tender picture of how God sees us and relates to us. It tells me how important each of us is to God as a part of God’s heart—as God’s children.
So, when someone asks you, “Just who do you think you are?” you can reply, “Well, as a matter of fact I’m a child. I’m one of God’s children!” Then you can go, “ppbbbbbffffftttt”, and happily skip away.