The Artist as Childlike
Oy, what a zany last few weeks. Too much, too much. I'm going to drop here a portion of my sermon notes because that's what I've been writing, instead of blogging. I figure it applies as much to artists as to anyone, but we'd have a particular spin on it that would make it come alive for us.
For context, I began my sermon by reading a letter C.S. Lewis had written to an American boy in 1955 and by showing, at least in one service, a clip from my first play back in 1994, "The Bracelet." I then set the question "What does it mean to be childlike?" by means of a visual metaphor. I followed this with a few brief contextual comments for the text, Mark 10:13-16, and made a handful of exegetical remarks on the four verses. This set the stage to be able to talk about four characteristics that Jesus may have had in mind when he enjoined the discipled to become like little children. The first two are what we might call objective, the second two subjective. By objective I mean a child's external or objective standing in 1st century Jewish/Greco-Roman society. These two qualities have nothing to do with any inherent quality about the child but refer instead to his or her actual, legal, social standing vis-a-vis the rest of society. By subjective I mean what we might ordinarily refer to when speak of childlike-heartedness.
Extra-curricular comments were made along the way but the substance follows closely to the written version. The sermon was about 40 minutes long and was accompanied by an invitation to prayer which was led by 1st through 6th grade kids. In groups of 3-5 and attended by their Sunday School teacher, I offered folks an opportunity to be prayed for by the children. Too quickly we underestimate the insight or power or incisiveness of a child's prayer. I invited folks to receive prayer for a recovery of true childlikeness and, if needed, for physical healing. It was a very sweet time, I think both for the adults and the kids.
WHAT IS CHILDLIKENESS?
NOTE WELL: childlikeness is not childishness. Childishness is the fallen condition of children as well as the immature tendencies in adults.
So then: Two objective qualities, Two subjective qualities:
1. It means you have no status, no useful skill, and therefore no power
a. The idea: In first-century Jewish/Greco-Roman culture children had no rights and therefore no power to make their life happen. They had no rights, that is, in the way that we Americans have issued rights to children. They have no political power, no social clout, no material capital. They also have no physical skills, no military skills, no rhetorical skills, no leadership skills and therefore no power to contribute to the establishment of the new Davidic kingdom. They were simply tag-alongs.
b. What is Jesus’ point? “That you, my brother disciples, must let go of any notion that you have the power of your own to bring about God’s kingdom, his unimaginably fantastically powerful kingdom. You have no power, that is, to make your life happen.” Indeed, in order to enter into God’s kingdom you must give up all your power, and when you have given it up completely, when in fact you have died to all the powers and abilities you have and even to your very life, then and only then will you be given them back, because only then, baptized in the fire of Christ, will they be of any use to you and to others. It means that when you are the weakest, when you are most humbled, when you are most desperate and broken and supple before God, at that point you will discover true power. It means, as St. Paul reminds us in 2nd Cor. 12:9, that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. It means that the kingdom of God is made up of a bunch of fools for Christ.
c. A model: St. Francis. He gives up everything he has and betrothes himself to Lady Poverty.
d. An anti-model: Donald Trump (or if you want a female, Jennifer Lopez).
d. An anti-model: The Icon of the American Self-Made Man. This icon of our common American identity encourages us to be self-sufficient and to always seek self-generated achievements which we can then use to prove to other people our importance. This man does not have your best interests in mind. This man is your flesh. He always has his act together. He is always cool. People always like him and he always has an answer or solution for every problem. He does not like being dependent upon anyone.
3. It means you are quick to trust
a. The idea: That children, when cared for by loving parents, are quick to trust. This habit is not to be confused with naïveté or gullibility. It describes instead a heart that is naturally inclined to entrust itself to his father or mother.
b. Jesus’ invitation: "To trust that your Father in heaven knows exactly what you need and most perfectly how to care for you." To trust his voice and ignore the noise of lies in your head. To trust him not just in the areas where you have a reasonable management of your issues, but to trust him in the areas where you are super sensitive or afraid or weak. Jesus invites us to trust him with a guileless, bold, free, and unafraid trust, with all our heart.
c. A model: Noah and Mary.
d. An anti-model: Me. I got burned by close friends in high school and college. Peter Parker got bit by a radioactive spider and turned into Spider-Man, so I got my trust severely broken and turned into a natural-born skeptic. I walk into a room of new people and my first instinct is not to trust. My first instinct is to observe and assess. I suspect before I believe. I am guarded rather than vulnerable. I am not Mary.
4. It means you live with an unselfconscious sense of wonder
a. The idea: That a little child has not acquired the ability to detach himself from his Self: that what you see is what you get, and what he sees is only a wonder of newness. He is not a self-preoccupied person but a person who is constantly apprehending and delighting in the wonder of the newness around him.
b. Jesus’ invitation: “To be unselfconscious. To stop worrying about what people think about us or depending upon their approval for our self worth. It is also an invitation to live our life in a constant recognition that wonder-filled things surround us.”
To paraphrase Ann Cogdell:
“It’s a capacity to take delight in the moment, in what’s at hand, to be really present to all that’s present—to be fully alive in the moment, not always bemoaning your past or fretting your future. It is to be spontaneous rather than merely contrived; to be full of curiosity to all of life instead of stressing and striving and becoming old too soon.”
c. A model: Tom Bombadil (cf. Luci Penvese, Dr. Seuss)
d. An anti-model: The Masked Pragmatist. Because he is self-conscious he wears a mask. The mask protects him from being made fun for his inadequacies; and oh how he is aware of them. The mask allows him to project an image of his ideal self, the self he thinks people would find impressive and desirable. It’s not his true self, of course, but because he doesn’t trust God with what he came out as from his mother’s womb, he has a hard time believing he is infinitely interesting and valuable. He is a masked pragmatist.
He is, as Mike Field observed, disinterested, bored, ho-hum, “been-there, done-that,” interested only in the everlasting value of what is practical. He is dismissive of “silly things” with a flick of his self-important hand. He is miserable because he realizes that he is wasting so much energy maintaining his self-image and accomplishing all these busy-bodied, self-absorbed projects where he takes himself much too seriously, when he could be using this energy on so many other life-giving things that do not rest upon the public opinion of his reputation. The Masked Pragmatist is your flesh. He is not free. He is a slave.
Why does this matter?
Because we can’t really live this Christian life unless we have a childlike disposition. We can try, but we’ll fail. Jesus warns us not to try. We can only do this Christian life the Jesus way. The Jesus life can only be lived the Jesus way, the childlike way. Is this possible? Depends on how you look at it. But if you look at Jesus, the answer is a deeply encouraging yes. As Wendy Dietrich pointed out to me in note: if Jesus asks us to live like a child, then he’s the one we have to look at to know what it means.
And indeed He is the most child-like of all. He relinquishes his power and becomes not just a man but the least of all kinds of men, a servant, a slave, the janitor to all (Phil 2). He doesn’t do anything on his own or for his own fame, he does only what the Father shows him to do, no matter how hard it may be. He is utterly dependent upon the Father and the Spirit (John 15:5). Jesus shows us what it looks like to trust people who might appear to be the least trustworthy: the adulterous whore lady at the well and the pilfering, conniving tax-collector Zacchaeus. And finally he is the most wonder-filled person. And now you would think when you were the person who made it all and knew it all backwards and forwards, nothing could surprise or delight you any more. But our God is not that way. Our God is always filled with wonder. Jesus never finds that same tree standing outside his house boring; it always fills him with wonder: that tree doing its tree thing--again!
How do we recover childlikeness?
1. Declare a revolution on your false self.
2. Pray that God would do whatever it takes to help you recover a childlike heart and to sustain you with great faith and grace when it becomes hard to trust his methods.
An Invitation to Prayer
(PHOTO: My nephews, Cormac and Brendan, and myself in Marfa, TX, home to Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation. This was one of the rare pictures where the three of us smiled normal.)