In her Erma 'Bombeckesque' kind of way, Messiah's Director of Children's and Family Ministries, Megan Dilitto gets to the heart of the matter about children, Christmas, and what it means to live with a heart wide open.
I have a friend with two kiddos in elementary school who we like to have over for Movie Night Fridays, where we throw a movie into the DVD player (or even bust out the Brontosaurus of a VHS), pop some stovetop popcorn (the only seemly and decent way to make popcorn, to our thinking), and wrap up in blankets on the couch or the floor to enjoy a kids' movie together.
On one of these evenings, we somehow got on the topic of animal shelters ... I'm not sure if maybe we were watching Lady and the Trampor Oliver and Company, but the older girl piped up that she would love to work in an animal shelter and give love to the unwanted dogs and cats that fill our world.
Now, this family we have over are jokesters and are always teasing and poking fun at each other in a perfectly harmless and loving way, so the mom of the family joked, "You better behave while you're working there and stop fighting with your brother at home, or I'll take a dog home and leave you there instead."
Usually the kiddos are used to this and just sass mom right back, so I don't know if she was tired or just a little more sensitive that day, but the daughter visibly got upset and very quiet. When her mom poked her with an elbow and asked what the deal was, the daughter said in hurt tones, "You said you'd leave me at the pound!", to which her mom hastily assured her she was just kidding and to chill out and eat some more popcorn. The girl recovered quickly and the evening went on smoothly
Now, obviously this child's mom was not going to leave her at the animal shelter, no matter how many fights she got into with her brother. This child is very much loved and her mom has no plans to trade her for a homeless mixed-breed. We would probably use the word 'gullible', not in a harsh way, but just as a way of explaining how children can get tricked into believing what is, obviously to us, a joke or deceit.
What is gullibility, though? We see it in kids who run screaming to tattle on siblings for whispering that they're going to shove an errant brother or sister's head in the toilet and flush, children who dig fingernails into the door jamb or a parent's pant leg because they read a book about monsters under the bed and they are certain they're going to be eaten on toast after the lights go out. We see it in the faces of children who discover the truth about the pastel-colored rabbit who for some foggy reason leaves baskets of plastic grass and egg-shaped chocolates to celebrate Jesus' resurrection.
That gullibility can be flipped on its head and turn into the phenomenon of children meeting the wonders of the world with unchecked joy, awe, and fascination, something we treasure in them and laud as much as any other quality they possess. You know what gullibility really is?
It's an open heart.
It's a child not having learned to be like an adult and meet new experiences with a sense of guardedness and skepticism. Yeah, sure, that skepticism is what saves us from buying a timeshare or eating that gas station sushi, but that skepticism is also the thing getting in the way of us being blown away by grandeur and stirred to awestruck tears when we see the wonder of Eyjafjallajokull (yes that is a real word and an actual place) or stand at the summit of Mt. St. Helens. As we get older, so many of us adopt this gross habit of thinking that when we downplay our amazement or wonder, we're somehow cooler. Nope. We're just more boring and we're cheating ourselves of a good, pure, worshipful response to God's majesty, goodness, and the gifts of his astounding creativity.
Take Christmas, for instance. When many of us were young, Christmas was THE event. Not just because of the gifts, either; Christmas was no school for two weeks, Christmas was seeing family members you (hopefully) loved to see but rarely visited, Christmas was more cookies than could ever be deemed necessary, Christmas was claymation holiday movies every night on ABC. Christmas was the best thing possible. It was the excitement of hearing about Santa and his reindeer and leaving out milk and cookies, it was hanging up the stockings your mom knit or wrote your name on with Puffy Paint, it was going Christmas tree hunting and putting up the one decoration that to you was the most beautiful one on the tree and treated with reverence bordering on idolatry. It was groaning at your dad's Elvis Christmas album and you exacting your revenge with your siblings by scream-singing The Twelve Days of Christmas all the way to Uncle George and Aunt Lisa's. It was the sweet taste of cheap milk chocolate in your Advent calendar and the crystalline beauty of Christmas lights that took dad four hours and several near-death experiences with the ladder to perfect in order to keep up with the neighbors' displays. It was Christmas music and the smell of cinnamon and pine and the taste of cocoa that burned your tongue but was worth it and screaming at seeing your brand new bicycle under the tree and, if you lived in the Pacific Northwest like me, maybe … maybe… it was snow.
Take a moment to go back to the Christmases of your childhood. I pray that you have at least some memories full of lights, love, cocoa and joy. Now ... do you feel that? Isn't it beautiful?That feeling of happiness and nostalgia? Doesn't it hurt a little bit, though, too?
Because now that we're older, we look forward to Christmas, but we sigh over it too. Because that wonder and majesty often translates to work and money and stress for the adults. We look back on our childhood Christmas memories wistfully, because we can't ever recapture that time. But what was it about childhood that made Christmas so heartbreakingly beautiful?
It's because our hearts were open. Open wide and without a shred of doubt or skepticism. We met God at Christmas time and we were so filled with the love and goodness that He no doubt poured into these traditions over the years, since Christmas came to that stable so many years ago. When we were engaged in the simple joy of loving and being around each other and celebrating Christmas and its light and music and good smells, God no doubt was overjoyed. What is Christmas, after all, but a birthday party for the source of all love? Should it not be overflowing with all that Christmas is? Is love itself not the best gift we could give to the Prince of Peace? Christmas is a time of such pure, sweet, love, and children are the ones that play and bask in the love of Christmas without reserve or constraint, dancing in the outpouring of happiness like falling snow. They get older and they come to doubt and raise an eyebrow and fear to look gullible ... it happened to me, it happened to you, at some point ... But it hasn't happened to them yet.
Just look at or talk to a child at Christmas time. Listen to their excitement. Cast off that shroud of adult composure and the lofty, indulgent smile. Because that happiness and excitement you see? That is the Holy Spirit filling and overflowing these lambs of the flock, and you are seeing what it looks like when God is so wholly invited into the space that His own joy and love for us is clearly reflected for us to look upon with wonder, awe, and the kind of love that fills the world at Christmas. The first Christmas was about a child, and it still is. So many times Jesus pointed to children and made clear that they are the ones to see the kingdom clearly, they are the ones He wants to bring close, they are the ones who are small and seemingly insignificant, but they represent the inheritors of Heaven because they so often come last in this world. They can show us what God is like because they have a childlike faith, which is notto say they are gullible...it is to say that their hearts are wide open. They are not too cool or poised to trust God and sit close to His Son. All that is Christmas is magnified and sealed in the heart of a child, so that when they are older, like us, they can reflect on that time when their hearts were so open that God walked right on in.