“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Recently I had the incomparable privilege of delivering a baby for the first time. There were many painstaking hours leading up to the crowning moment, but with her mother’s final, labored push, the fleshy being slid into (and, fortunately for a rookie doctor, not out of) my open hands.
“She’s here! It’s a girl!” I announced. “Happy birthday, little one. Welcome to the world.”
She responded to my greeting with a hearty, reassuring cry. I laid her on her mother’s chest and began wiping her dry, rubbing vigorously until she pinked. It almost seemed a shame to spoil her untouched skin with my strokes.
Umbilical cord cut, I carried her to the nearby warmer to collect her vitals and listen to her lungs. Holding the miniature stethoscope to her chest with my right hand, I used my left index finger to stroke her open palm and quiet her cry. Her tiny fingers closed reflexively around it; I no longer lamented the touch.
Her cry soon waned, and before long, her hesitant eyes quivered open, testing out this new notion of sight and light. I paused my exam to take her in. Looking into those eyes, I felt as if I had been given a temporary, backstage pass into the kingdom of heaven.
Babies enter this world freshly formed, a mere nine months’ journey from that other kingdom. I don’t think we existed before our conception—Christ alone was present with the Creator at the beginning of time—but I do believe that we possess a certain proximity to the Creator at the beginning of our lives. This is why I love children: they’re a bit more elemental, a bit closer to the primordial center, a bit more water and fire and spirit. Children’s eyes retain the light of God.
Somewhere along the way, though, we get bigger, we grow older, and that light loses some of its brilliance. The distance between our surface selves and our core, beloved being increases. It’s not that we’ve lost it—I’m convinced it’s still there—it’s just tucked deeper within.
Adults usually talk of growing up as a promotion from childhood, a moving past. But I wonder if we don’t so much grow out of our childhood selves as we grow around them, layering on experience and reason while retaining, deep down, an innermost core of childlikeness. We’re all Russian nesting dolls, each of our prior selves nested one inside the other. And way deep down, nestled in the very center, is the tiny, tender infant who first entered the kingdom of earth, soft and unspoiled, shrieking with vitality, radiating new light.
If this is true, then it is good news: that which Jesus calls us to become in order to enter the kingdom of heaven is something we’ve already been, something still deep within. But here’s the interesting thing about this verse: Jesus calls us to change in order to become like children. He implies that we are not already this way, that it is not our default state.
To change and be more like children in this sense is not to regress, not to abandon maturity or rationality or discernment (Paul later bemoans the follies of adults who exhibit such childishness). Rather, we are to draw deeper within ourselves, closer to that inborn center—which is to say, closer to God. And once we unearth that childlikeness, we can connect it back to our grown-up selves, transforming into a more integrated whole, tapping into a smallness and a nearness that we will never outgrow.
In Hallelujah Anyway, Anne Lamott writes, “A baby feels and smells like God. You can get information from any point on a baby’s body, the toes, the soft spot, and this information is life, merciful energy, unruined radiance. Babies are waves, mosaic chips of the unified field. Is it possible, since skin is the largest organ of the body, that new babies don’t know the inside from the outside when they first come out? That there is no difference? That they are Möbius strips? This is how we came; wow. Talk about whole.”
I love the Möbius strip analogy. If you’re not familiar with it, allow me to illustrate. Take a strip of paper. Trace your finger along each side; demonstrate to yourself that there are, in fact, two independent sides—a front and a back—disconnected. Now give one end of the strip a half-twist and bring the two ends to meet. Tape them together. Take a marker and start drawing a line down the length of the strip. Keep going. What happens? You get back to the start; the two sides have become one, and the strip is now infinite.
Jesus is always doing this—putting a twist in how we see the world, turning endings into beginnings, making finite things infinite, showing us that two can become one. Here, he invites us to imagine a kingdom in which everything has been turned on its head.
Entry to this kingdom is not reserved for kings and queens, knights and noblemen. He does not call us to become captains or CEOs, priests or professors, trailblazers or trendsetters. Rather, he calls us to be like children—humble, vulnerable, dependent, seeking—what we have been already, what we can be once again.
This is a new kingdom in which everything is upside-down and backside-front. It’s like “The Opposite Game”—did you play that one as a child? The rules are simple: no means yes, yes means no, low becomes high, and to live is to die.
This season, let’s play it again. Let’s make it so.
On your mark. Get set. Go.