3/10/2019: The Nearness of God, Romans 10: 8b-13
The Nearness of God
It’s happened at least over the past several years that we’ve celebrated Children’s Sunday during the season of Lent. And I’d like to say this was the product of some deep theological insight about the ways children lead us back to ourselves, to the deepest and purest parts of who we are before God and each other and the world. Modeling faith and humility and obedience and all the rest of it. But the reality is that it was the only time we could find in our crowded church calendar.
In fact, we worried, I remember, if Children’s Sunday wouldn’t be “serious” enough for this season of penitence. And yet in celebrating Children’s Sunday in this season, however arbitrarily, I believe we’ve stumbled upon all of these greater truths—which of course is so often how it is, we rarely plan ahead for our own enlightenment.
Especially on this first Sunday in Lent, as we begin our journey with Jesus to the cross, what better guides to show us the way? How powerful to be called to confession by a child? How humbling. I found myself wanting to tell them, Surely your love is not like a morning cloud, too!
It’s a beautiful and potent way of entering into this season, which, if we’ll let it, can change us; it can truly transform something essential inside us. Perhaps many things. And especially as we focus our attention on these words from Paul in Romans, what better guides to speak to us about the nearness of God than our children?
Jesus of course knew of the special access children have to God and the Kingdom of God—their almost natural closeness of these things. Unless you change and become like chidden, he tells us, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. You won’t find what you’re looking for.
And so the church has asked, since the disciples heard his admonition that day, What is it about children that we need to model, that we need to become? Surely not everything, parents everywhere would say. Children are complicated—exceedingly more complicated than we often give them credit for being. And they change so much from year to year, even month to month, day to day it seems. Are we to be like a 3 year old or a 7 year old? A 5 year old or a 12 year old. We’re not told. Or is it that we’re to embody those traits that all children have, whatever their age? That special, innocent depth and perception? Some weeks back Billy and Sidney were playing in our house and packing some things up like they were going someplace and Audrey asked them where they were going and Billy replied, We’re going to church.” And Audrey said, “Well what are you going to do at church?” and Billy said, “We’re going for the big vote.” And I’ll confess I’m not sure how I feel about that, knowing what that has meant for us over these past several months. But as I’ve thought about it, the freedom with which he said it gives me hope. Maybe the knowledge that church is where important things happen, where we talk about things that matter, no matter how uncomfortable.
What is it about children that places them near God?
Annie Dillard, in her memoir of childhood, writes about how children come into consciousness, something we all went through and if we try can probably still remember. She says it’s almost like waking up. “Children ten years old,” she writes, “wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is that sad?” she asks. “They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning…surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills; they know the neighborhood, they can read and write…they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.”
Is that how it is? Is that how you remember it being?
And she remembers her own awakening, how it didn’t happen all at once, but piecemeal. Discovering herself and the world and then forgetting them, and discovering them again. It was like awaking intervals until gradually the time she spend awake was more than the time she spent asleep, noticing this process, she writes, “and guess[ing] with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.”
Is that how it is? Is it that as children we’re somehow free of ourselves—of who we are, who we’re supposed to be? Who we want to be but perhaps never will.
Is it because we’re free from ourselves as children that we’re close to God?
I’ve told this story before but it still haunts me, about a little girl, maybe about 3 years old. She was the firstborn in her family, and her mother was expecting again, and the little girl was very excited about having a new brother or sister. And soon after her parents brought their new baby boy home from the hospital, the little girl made a request: she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. Now, her parents were a bit uneasy with her insistence about being alone with the baby with the door shut, but they remembered that they had a baby monitor, so they figured they could let their daughter do this, and if they heard the slightest indication that anything strange was happening, they could be in the baby’s room in an instant.
So they let their daughter go into the baby’s room, helped her shut the door, and hurried over to the monitor. As they listened through the faint white noise, they heard the little girl’s footsteps moving across the room, imagined her standing over the crib, and then they heard her say something to her three-day-old brother that left them amazing and bewildered. She said, Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten.
What is it from childhood that we must somehow recover to know God’s dream for our lives? To sense God’s nearness? In one way of thinking, we can’t un-know ourselves and the world—that’s not how memory works. But in another sense, perhaps that’s exactly what we must do. We must un-know much of what we have learned about ourselves and the world. We must un-learn so many lessons we’re taught about how the world works and how it doesn’t. What’s of value and what’s not—who is of value, too.
We need to un-learn these things and we need to learn new things. In a sense, we need to wake up again—if not be born again. Not from childhood into adulthood, but from adulthood into child of God-hood. Where we’re aware of God’s nearness in our lives. Where we know who God is, somewhere deep in our bodies, and we know just as deeply who God says we are.
And we believe—more times than not until one day we believe it all the time—that it’s true.
 Annie Dillard, “Waking Up,” found in The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, 55-56
 Marcus Borg tells this story in “The Heart of Christianity,” p.113-114.