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© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
A well known contemporary humorist and writer, Larry Wilde, once said “Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.” And Erma Bombeck, a well-known funny woman in her own right, added to those sentiments by saying “There is nothing sadder in this world than to awake on Christmas morning and not be a child.”
Indeed, Christmas of all days year ‘round, is one most anticipated by children – and perhaps most dreaded by many adults! But as we have considered this very Dickens holiday, I think we have found over the past two Sundays just why Christmas is best seen through the eyes of a child. It ought to be a simple holiday when relationships, family and service to others are valued more than elaborate gifts, parties and decorations. We yearn to find meaning in the day by remembering the ideals of the one whom we honor – ethics of compassion, innocence, humility and peace. And Charles Dickens understood all of that. In most of his novels, it is the adults who need to change and adjust their thinking for the better. And it is the children in his stories who suffer the most but who still retain the kind of faith, love and wide-eyed wonder that gives our world hope.
Such Dickens ideals echo those of Jesus who implored adults to let little kids join him. “Don’t hold them back,” he once said. “The kingdom of heaven belongs to them!” Since even Jesus claimed that heaven is something we help to create here on earth, children and their innocent ways are what make life better and more like heaven. Even more, it is for the sake of youth and for the future of humanity that we work and serve and give. In many ways, therefore, it is fitting that this time of year is best celebrated in the company of children – or in the company of those who act and think like children! As Erma Bombeck said, Christmas is empty and sad if we do not reclaim the child in us all.
I remember the second Christmas of my daughter Sara. The must-have gift for kids that year was an animated wonder toy called Teddy Ruxpin. This large stuffed bear would talk, sing, move his mouth and blink his eyes – all in some fantastic but silly way. Her mother and I thought at the time that Sara was old enough to receive such a gift. So, expensive as it was, we bought it for her and made it her featured gift. After we helped her unwrap the gift and open the box, and after I figured out how to work it, Sara stared at this 1980’s technological marvel. It seemed to perplex her for a minute or so but, instead of delighting in this live action stuffed bear, she quickly turned her attention to the brightly colored wrapping paper and a large red bow. She was soon playfully tossing the paper around, wrapping it around her head, playing with the ribbon, crawling inside of the box and completely ignoring the singing bear! Simple things occupied her and delighted her far more than that expensive toy. Pulling the box over her head and playing peek-a-boo was much more fun. We realized we should have given her several wrapped, but empty, boxes! Money, technology and knowledge of such things had not corrupted her yet – as they do almost everyone when they reach a certain age. Whenever that happens, we lose something beautiful, pure and almost divine.
Contrasted with my memories of my young daughter Sara are those I have of my maternal grandfather. When I was young, I recall Christmases with him when, after a few glasses of holiday spirits, he would become very, very silly. He would decorate his bald head with bows, put on ugly clothing other people had received, dangle tree ornaments from his ears and mug for me and my siblings. We thought he was crazy but absolutely hilarious. My grandmother, who was more serious, would frown at his antics but that caused him to be even more silly – he’d stick his tongue out at her and continue on. At Christmas, this mature, older man became a child again – and he made the day alive and fun and full of laughter.
Charles Dickens does much the same with characters in his novels. We remember the kids in his novels – the innocent and naive David Copperfield, the conniving Artful Dodger and his humorous antics, and the pure Tiny Tim who thinks far more about the happiness of others than he does of himself. As much as Dickens identified with children who suffered as he had, he championed their interests and he was strategic in using them to prick the consciences of his readers. Victorian England was prone to distrust the poor – often questioning their work ethic and morality. Prevailing thinking of the time, and sometimes even today, believed that people were personally at fault for being poor or in debt. Thus, they were punished in debtor’s prisons and their plight was ignored. While Dickens knew such thinking is generally false, he also knew that nobody could question the work ethic or motivations of children. They are innocents who had absolutely nothing to do with their suffering. Who could not sympathize with and cheer for his children characters?
Indeed, it is Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” who captures our hearts and sympathies. Despite his infirmity, he exclaims that he hopes people at church see him as physically challenged, especially at Christmas. It might be pleasant for them, he says, to see his infirmity and be reminded of the one who helps the blind see and the lame walk. Later on it is he who prays for Scrooge and Tim is given the most remembered line in the novel – “God bless us everyone!” This was a not a child feeling the shame of his condition or the neediness of it. He saw himself in simple terms and with childish innocence. He felt blessed and not cursed, he felt loved by his parents and by a Jesus with whom he sensed a common cause. As Tiny Tim says in the novel, “It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty founder was a child himself!”
While we do young people no good by idealizing them and turning them into saints, we all recognize the characteristics in them that we forget to practice as adults. Such qualities enable belief in Santa, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny and all sorts of magical ideas. Children are less inhibited about love, play and laughter. At some point in life, we learn too much, we become a bit too cynical and much too serious. We lose the sense of mystery, playfulness and implicit trust that young children have.
We are most reminded of our child-like deficit at Christmas when the world is filled with lights, gifts and fun. We are reminded to change our thinking, much like we discussed last Sunday, to find the child in us all. Jesus tells us that to think and believe like a child is to have true faith. When power hungry adults who followed him asked Jesus who among them was the greatest, he called a child to stand in their midst. And then he said that whoever wants to understand the divine heart, whoever wants to experience heaven-like contentment, he or she must change and have faith and humility like that child, like any child. When you serve and love children, he said, you have served and loved the divine.
Faith like a child is the kind that believes in magic, the kind that trusts in the implicit goodness of others, the kind that suffers when others suffer, the kind of faith that is humble and simple. It is the kind of pure and totally trusting faith that I remember in my daughters when they were little – when they would toddle along beside me and instinctively reach up their little hands to hold mine and go anywhere with me, their sweet trust so complete in their daddy.
Such innocence can be dangerous, but as adults we push that aside too far – our instincts tell us to mistrust and doubt and look with a cynical eye at anything and anyone. Jesus says NO to that! Real spirituality involves hope and trust and unconditional love. It involves letting go of the self and reaching for the hand of beauty, wonder, kindness and laughter.
Jesus follows up his encouragement to have faith like a child by saying that whoever would harm the innocence of any child, whoever who takes away the hope a child has in a secure and comfortable world, is evil and of no good. To ignore the condition of children – much like ignoring other outcast members of society – is to ignore the heart of god.
Woven into the very fibers of our being, intrinsic to our human DNA, is a concern for others. When we turn those impulses off and gratify only our selfish needs, we have abandoned the essential spirituality that makes us uniquely human. In Jesus’ male dominated and paternalistic Jewish and Roman culture, children had little status. They had the same diminished importance as women, slaves, the poor and the diseased. For Jesus, however, love, care and concern for all marginalized people, – and especially for children – are essential to a spiritually inclined heart.
And Charles Dickens believed exactly the same. By converting to Unitarianism from Christianity, he did not reject the teachings of Jesus. Dickens simply believed he found a faith that really practiced them. A Unitarian motto of the time – and one that resonates strongly with me – was “deeds, not creeds”. And so Dickens wove into his novels the kind of Jesus ethic that focused not on religious salvation, doctrines of belief or intellectual theology, but on “hands-on” service to others – most importantly children. Indeed, when confronted with the reality of a lame and sick Tiny Tim who will die without compassionate intervention, Scrooge begins to change. Likely suffering from rickets – a disease that can be reversed with proper diet – we see at the end of “A Christmas Carol” that Tim will live. This is because Scrooge intervenes in his life, assists his family and begins to pay Tim’s father higher wages. Like Jesus, Dickens implores us not just to have faith like a child, but to protect that trust and nurture it by caring for and assisting any child who suffers.
Seeing the faces of children at Christmas is, like Tiny Tim says, to be reminded of Jesus and all that he taught. Like other great prophets of history, he pointed us to the impulses and ways of life which we instinctively know are true. In each human heart is the seed of the divine, the spark that yearns to love, cooperate and care for others. We were not wonderfully made to be isolated, sullen and selfish, but to bond, love, enjoy and marvel at the great beauty around us. How can we not see in the face of any child – black, brown, dirty, crying or sick – something so wonderful? How can we not celebrate the birth of any new life – like all of the grandchildren recently born into our Gathering family? How can we not love this place – as I do – when kids and teens are running around, playing and laughing? How can we not bless and be cheered by child-like goodness and love that we see in any of us – as we saw, for example, in Danny this past Sunday who so generously gave of his time to write each person a Christmas card? As the great painter Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.”
Much like Christmas honors a poor, likely illegitimate child born to a teenage mother over two-thousand years ago, we must also use this night, this holiday, to resolve to honor, serve and protect each and every child. In each one is the divine gift of wonder and innocence. To each child has been given trust and hope in the goodness of our world. We must not let poverty, illness, discrimination or lack of opportunity destroy that in any child. Like we have determined to do here at the Gathering, to serve homeless youth in our community, we must protect that child spark of life – in children, in ourselves and in our world.
When you go home tonight, when you awake in the morning – on Christmas day – let your inner child out. See the world in new and fresh ways. Be silly, be joyous, celebrate with abandon! Grab the tinsel, the wrapping paper, the boxes, the ribbons and the wine and throw a party! Let go of your serious self and reach out to family, friends and others with a trusting but humble hand – “Here I am,” you might say, “It’s Christmas and I want to play!”