Leaving Salem

Several years ago I sat with my young son one evening watching his favorite channel: The Cartoon Network. It wasn’t Bugs Bunny or Huckleberry Hound, but it was entertaining enough. After a few laughs Braden reached up with his small hands and rubbed the skin around my eyes and temples. He burrowed his chubby little fingers into the ever deepening crows’ feet that now mark my face. Just as I was about to push his aggravating hands away, he asked, “What are those?” The laughing stopped immediately. Despairingly, I said, “Those are wrinkles.”

A few days later Braden and I were buzzing down the highway, he sitting in his car seat in the back of our family SUV. Out of nowhere he said to me, “Dad, I don’t have any sprinkles.” I looked in the rearview mirror to find him carefully rubbing his temples. I laughed hard, showing off my “sprinkles” once again. “Why do I have sprinkles,” I asked my observant son, bracing myself for the answer. Surely if he has noticed my wrinkled face he has also made note of my now graying beard, expanding love handles, and aching joints. But his answer was a pleasant, most unexpected surprise. He said, “Because you need sprinkles to help you smile.” And smile I did.

One of my favorite pictures of Jesus has him seated on a big Palestinian rock. The artist, unknown to me, has surrounded him with smiling, playful children. The Son of God, head thrown back in laughter, is smothered with little ankle-biters of all nationalities, races, and colors. That portrait comes right off the pages of the Gospels. People were bringing their children to Jesus to be touched and blessed by him. Jesus’ disciples, with no tolerance for such immature distraction, began running off the children and their parents. Jesus rebuked the disciples strongly, and readily invited the children into his arms. He also took the opportunity to be instructive. He said, “Unless you become as a little child you will not enter the kingdom of God.” Strangely, Braden reminded me of that picture and the words of Christ.

We grown-ups worry over so many things: Our finances, politics, the stock market, the color of the new carpet in the church sanctuary. We fret over our weight, our wrinkles, what sags and sways on our bodies. We have built up defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from others and the world. In the process, we miss out on so much. Children have no such concerns or inhibitions. Blissfully, children live their lives with abandon. They soak up every moment of happiness. They quickly forget pain and heartache. They deal honestly and lovingly with those around them. They collapse into their beds at night, exhausted, having lived another day to its fullest. And they awake in the morning, slate wiped clean, ready for a new adventure.

Children attack life with the passion of a zealot, the love of heaven, the forgiveness of a saint, and the nakedness of an open book. Jesus was right to point us toward the little people in our lives. How I wish we adults could live with the same state of mind! My wish can become reality, I think. A child, no matter his or her age, is one who is still learning, still dependent, one who has not lost the God-given gift of trust. A child is one who still has an impressionable mind and a pliable will. One can live as a child whether he or she is seven or seventy years of age.

Brennan Manning is right: “Heaven will be filled with preschoolers. No adults will be allowed admittance.” Heaven is only for those who are still in diapers; only for those who still have a sense of openness and adventure; only for those who still reach out to touch the faces of those they love; only for those with the openness and sincerity of youth; only for those who will allow God to actually do something with them. Heaven waits for those children of all ages who possess a curious, welcoming smile – even if that smile is surrounded by sprinkles.

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