I was reading today, a little book about Jesus and the children. In it, two or three well behaved, neatly dressed little kids are waiting patiently with their mothers by the side of the road, and some of Jesus' grumpy friends come along and tell them to get out of the way. Then Jesus asks his ten or so followers to wait while he shares a moment with the adoring and adorable children.
Far too often, to make stories accessible to kids, authors and artists turn some of the most powerful lessons in the scriptures into saccharine photo ops. Don't get me wrong, I love children's books, and scripture story books, and I have a vast collection of gospel pictures that range from stick figures to fine art. I believe there is a place for all of them. But when the easy version of the story is all we ever get, it does a disservice to both the subject matter and the listeners.
Yes, Jesus loves the little children, but if you met the kids in this book, you'd love them too. It's easy to make time for cute well behaved children. It is easy to see how their simple trusting natures represent the kingdom of heaven. When you were a child, maybe you looked at the kids in the picture and tried to imagine that one of them looked just like you. I know I did. But what happens when you outgrow the stage of being a cute innocent child? Do you no longer represent Heaven when you hit your angsty, pimply teens? At what age does Jesus stop loving you?
I struggled with these questions through adolescence as depression played havoc with my self esteem and filled me with overwhelming misplaced guilt.
Recently, I was impressed by the Tissot painting of the scene, in which there is a crowd, primarily of women, listening to Jesus teach. These women are making sacrifices to be there listening to Jesus teach. They'll have to stay up late to finish all the work at home. Their husbands might or might not support their faith. We know that women were among Jesus' most devoted disciples. But if they were trying to keep the Law of Moses, they either had or wanted children. There was not a system of all day public school and day care available to these women. If they wanted to spend hours listening to Jesus teach, they had to bring their kids with them. From this picture, I get the feeling that Jesus knew that if they sent the children away, they'd be sending the mothers away too. Jesus loves the mothers of young children. He knows it's not easy to get a young family to and through a church meeting. He wants us to keep coming. He knows that through us, He can reach a whole generation, as yet unstained by sin. Suffer the little children and their mothers to come unto me, and forbid them not. For of such is the kingdom of Heaven.
Today though, I was struck by the children. I believe that the kids who were asked to leave were probably not the cute ones, the ones sitting quietly by the side of the road. I think they were the ones who had trouble sitting still. The ones whose hair got tangled, and whose clothes got dirty and askew mere moments after their mothers had them dressed and brushed neat and clean. I bet they were the kids who shouted out their potty needs at inopportune moments, and wouldn't be shushed when they had questions they wanted answers to.
Imagine that you are in Stake Conference, and a visiting General Authority is up on the podium giving a deep doctrinal talk. A six or seven-year-old with Attention Deficit, and maybe Autism issues decides to go up and tell him about the fabulous bug they found in the yard yesterday. The mom tries to say that now isn't the time, and pulls something from the enormous bag full of distractions she lugs around for the purpose, but the child starts throwing a tantrum. The people on surrounding benches sigh to themselves. They know it's not their job to judge, but really, isn't the kid old enough to keep it together for one meeting? This sort of thing stopped being cute years ago. An usher comes down the aisle to discreetly help the mom maneuver the screaming child, the giant bag, and the three other kids to the cry room.
It is at this point that the General Authority stops the meeting and comes down off the stand. He walks down the aisle and takes the struggling child in his arms. He asks about the bugs (the whole congregation heard the topic of the screaming fit several times), and listens for five minutes to a rambling story about how the beetles and roly polies want to be friends with the ants, and then the beautiful locust borer arrives, and all the bugs have a party, and did you know that the locusts (which are not the same as locust borers, even though they sound the same) were good helpers for God and Moses? Then, the General Authority folds a program into an origami cicada, and goes back to the podium. "Suffer the little children to come unto me." He says. "And forbid them not. For of such is the kingdom of Heaven"