To my shame, I did not always have a heart for a children. During my bachelor years small children often irritated me, and when Melanie and I were married I expressed the determination that our children would never be allowed to behave like those I often came across on my pastoral rounds. More than once I almost sat on a piece of half-eaten toast bedecked with sticky apricot jam which had been left on the sofa by a crying toddler. Of course our children quickly shattered my lofty ideals – God does have a sense of humour.
Growing up, our three children gave us great joy and delight. Providentially my wife was able to stay at home while I attended to church business in order to ‘earn our keep.’ The moral of the story is don’t sell out your family for anything. By sheer grace our children turned out ok and today all follow Jesus, together with their spouses. We thoroughly enjoy our six grandsons, ages two (almost) to fourteen – it is of course always nice to retreat to our restful home at the end of a visit!
On leaving the institutional Church eight years ago, God laid on my heart the facilitating of organic house churches together with ministry to the poor. Somehow something was missing, until I read somewhere that approximately eighty percent of the world’s population was poor and young. Apart from ‘children’s talks’ on Sunday mornings and gelling quite well with the youth in CAWKI (‘church as we knew it’), I didn’t know much about ministry to children and I was in my sixties! When God speaks we obey, and so our house churches have always integrated children and youth in our fellowship gatherings. In addition I volunteered my services to two struggling SCO (Student Christian Organisation) teachers at a local township school in a poverty-ridden community. The fruits have been beyond my wildest dreams in terms of young lives influenced and learning from the poor.
Two news articles struck me this past week. One was about Sir Nicholas Winton MBE, a British humanitarian who organised the rescue of 669, mostly Jewish, children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War Two. The British press dubbed him ‘The British Schindler.’
The second article was an interview with author Johann Christoph Arnold about his book, Their Name is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World. He derived the title (the first part anyway) from Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean poet and Nobel laureate. In one poem she wrote “Su nombre es hoy,” expressing the thought “Many things can wait. Children cannot… Their name is today.” In the interview Arnold calls for a new ‘reverence for children’: “Children are not computers or robots that can be programmed according to our wishes; they have a heart and soul, not only a brain.” He grew up really poor, but with great family community. Here are some of his insights to guiding our children and youth today:
- He challenges the standardized educational testing so popular today, maintaining that it does not take into account a child’s home life and the difficulties he or she may be facing. Measurements and testing don’t address the root problems children face.
- He challenges the value of modern technology, in which smart-phones are an extension of our arm and toddlers use tablets, i.e. the electronic kind. While he doesn’t advocate returning to the stone age, he makes the point that those working with children see the disadvantages of kidz glued to screens for more and more hours per day: it affects their health, eyesight, hearing and weight. It also militates against communication skills: teens can interact with their phones but often struggle with loneliness and a loss of identity. They are stuck between the real world and the virtual.
- He challenges the materialism bred by affluence: toys, gifts and activities may be meant as an expression of love, but often they burden and distract children, weighing them down with ownership and possessiveness, with a focus on having instead of being.
Arnold highly recommends two things:
- Instead of ‘things,’ give your children time and attention on a daily basis (a tough assignment in today’s crazy world).
- Unstructured and frequent play and contact with the great outdoors (I know what the latter does when we manage to take some of our school kidz on a camp-out or a day at the ocean: we still come across the odd child who has never been in a motorcar, or never seen the ocean though only thirty minutes’ drive away). We’re all familiar with the term kindergarten (coined by Friedrich Froebel, a German educator, in the 19th century), lit. a garden of children, where each child can be nurtured with the same love and care given to a seedling.
Arnold concludes: “Our response upon encountering a child must be nothing less than reverence… reverence is more than just love. It includes an appreciation of the qualities children possess (and we ourselves have lost), a readiness to rediscover their value, and the humility to learn from them.”
Jesus, while mentoring his status-hungry disciples on a certain occasion, called a small child over and said to them, “I assure you, unless you turn from your sins and become as little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who trust in me to lose their faith, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around the neck… Beware that you don’t despise a single one of these little ones. For I tell you their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father” (Mt. 18:1-6, 10/NLT).
Parents and grandparents, the greatest legacy we can leave to our children and grandchildren is not money or material things accumulated in our life, but rather a legacy of character and faith. That reminder, by Dr. Billy Graham, is stuck just above my computer, lest I forget.
Parents in the institutional Church, why shouldn’t you enjoy the privilege of introducing your children and teens to Jesus! They can’t just be left to the ‘Sunday School Teacher’ or ‘Youth Leader’ or even your church’s much-vaunted ‘Youth Programme’ to connect them with Christ. Mom and Dad, you are called to incarnate Christ in the home, live the life, speak the Good News of Jesus as related in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. You are called to pray them into the Kingdom.
Those of us in organic expressions of faith, let us see children and young people as vital to your group, engage them, honour them, remember their birthday, love them, pray for them (and tell them), mentor them (you can be wonderful ‘spiritual parents’ to children from a single parent home or dysfunctional home). Impart Jesus to them – teaching without impartation and revelation is dead religion (Eph. 1:15ff) (check the drop-out rate of youth from the average traditional church). Our attitude is key. In my mind’s eye I can still see our youngest daughter Lyndall, in her late teens and early twenties being a kind of ‘Pied Piper’ to the street kidz and the squatter camp children. They followed her everywhere. Her secret? She was real, authentic, and loved them (as she still does today, rearing Luke and Evan, and imparting Jesus in her kindergarten classroom). I still have on my desk a little decorated matchbox with a tiny toy car stuck on top, which Lyndall gave to church parents who helped transport kidz those years ago: it carries the words, ‘A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of clothes I wore, but the world may be much different because I was important in the life of a child.’ Today I pay tribute to my co-worker, Siphokazi, who is a constant reminder of what it means to have a heart for children as she oversees Turning Point Youth Centre in Motherwell Township.
My eyes are misting up. So much of the Christian life is about HAVING A HEART FOR CHILDREN… in fact, having the heart of a child!