One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16 NLT)
What would it have been like to be a child in the above story? Imagine the emotional rollercoaster you would have ridden. I am sure the children wanted to see Jesus more than their parents did. But, for a very different reason.
The parents wanted a blessing for their children. They wanted the right to claim, “My child was touched by Jesus. We received his blessing!”
Children aren’t that concerned with the name and fame game. They live in the moment, enjoying life one experience at a time. Children just wanted to be with Jesus. Because he told great stories. Because he cuddled them. Because he laughed when they did. Because his smile was as sincere and kind as his eyes. Children wanted to be with Jesus because he loved them – and they could feel it.
In one of his many stories, Jesus suggested people have four responses to his teaching. Some, like a rocky footpath, barely take notice – nothing sinks in. Others, like shallow soil, burst into action with new life but fizzle when things heat up. A third kind of hearer, surrounded by thorns, is choked to death before they can mature. And finally, there is a forth listener who, like good soil, is healthy and ready for the Word and becomes both blessed and a blessing as the harvest multiplies in them and through them. This is who we, as parents, want to be – good soil growing the Word in our lives and in our children.
While he held children on his lap, Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Why? What intuitive receptivity or ability does a child have that adults lack? Somehow, kids 'get' the Kingdom of God. The story gets through. Children are good soil. What attribute of childlikeness must we have to enter the Kingdom of God?
In 2007 Oxford University initiated a focused anthropological study entitled, the “Cognition, Religion, & Theology Project”. Their goal was to understand why humans, across the globe and through time, have faith. Every culture has religion. Why? What is it about humanity that results in us having belief in a higher power?
Coming from our Christian perspective, these questions may seem strange. But, they make perfect sense when detachedly studying people as creatures. Where does the reality of God or gods come from and why do humans, across the cultures, believe?
In July 2010, Oxford University held a Cognitive Science of Religion convention to reveal their findings. 41 papers were presented on various aspects of human faith and religion.* Intriguingly, much of the research focused on children and their faith. It seems, the scientists discovered, to understand human faith we must first understand a child’s faith.
Various findings suggested that in imaginative play all children include a "God" figure - higher power, omniscient being, superpowers - even children from non-faith backgrounds. Their invisible friends are more likely to be immortal than natural. One paper memorably quipped that invented playmates tend to be more “godlike than doglike.” Children’s imaginations do not create pets to play with, but instead wonder toward God.
Another interesting finding about the faith of children was that children understand God's immortality before they understand human mortality. Eternal life makes more sense than human death. Scientists were amazed by this finding. To Christians, it is perfectly reasonable because we know God’s original plan for life did not include death. Childlike faith understands this intuitively.
It would seem, those who believe most authentically, make-believe most authentically. Jesus calls us toward an experience of faith in which the imagination is fully engaged – like a child. Notice what Jesus did not say: he did not say the Kingdom of God belongs to children. He did say, "The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”
In storytelling, a story becomes effective when the listener exercises the “suspension of disbelief.” This is the ability to enter the story-world – to let go of "reality" while enjoying the story. You have undoubtedly experienced this during a movie or while reading a book when your mind stops saying, “this is just a story” and starts allowing the story to come to life – allowing it, in effect, to be true.
Most children are able to suspend disbelief as quickly as you can say, “once upon a time”. Adults take a bit longer. This ability to fully enter a story and forget the cares of the world, for a time, is part of what it is to be human. It exists in all cultures when stories are told.
One Christmas season I was acting in a walk-through Christmas pageant. Each group of people would come through our scene for a matter of minutes and then continue the story by walking to the next scene. As Herod, it was my job to exude a selfish arrogance that betrayed my words that I too wished to “go and worship the child.” Once the audience had moved away, I would leave the stage. But, in one group, a little boy did not stand and leave with his group. Instead he remained seated on the grass and stared at me as I sat on my throne. As his group entered the next scene, the boy’s sister rushed back and grabbed his shoulder, “Come-on! We’ve gotta go!” The boy jolted back to reality. Confused, he looked at his sister and, in a startled voice, said, “He’s not the real – ” then his head snapped back to me and he proclaimed, “You’re not the real Herod!”
This is the suspension of disbelief done as only a child can do it. He was so lost in the story that it took a shake and a shout from his sister to get him back to reality. Those who believe most authentically, make-believe most authentically. Good soil brings the story to life. And this is the childlike reality that we are called to imitate. We are to be engaged with the story like a child. Childlike faith - the faith required to get into the Kingdom of God - is a faith that gets lost in the story.
If God truly wants us to get lost in the story of His presence, power and provision then there should be somewhere we can turn to engage in the story. And there is. The Bible is full of stories. Eighty percent of the Bible is story! Why so many stories? Because God knows we need stories to hang our faith on. He made us as creatures of story. I know I am on the right track when I find myself lost in the epic story of God and His Kingdom.
So, how can we engage with the Bible in a way that disciples our children and us? Perhaps the easiest way is to ask your children to tell the stories with you. They will need paper, pens, paths, paint, seeds, songs, waves, sunshine, noise, trees, rain, pictures, fruit, fields and time – lots of time. Because kids really get God’s Kingdom and to tell Kingdom stories takes time. As adults we get too easily caught in the trap of explaining and proving. Children, on the other hand, get lost in exploring and playing.
Make-believe your way through the Bible with your children. In every family and at every stage of childhood, this retelling and reenacting of the story will look, feel and truly be different. That is ok. In fact, that is important. The story of God’s Kingdom is one that builds layer by layer with each telling.
Let your imagination come back to life – become good soil, once again. Enjoy the Bible as the storybook of the ages. Let it speak to you and through you in a way that is beyond belief. Tell the Story. Tell it with your life and with your lips. Tell the Story well. And it will make belief.
* A Project Summary of Oxford’s CSR Convention can be found at: