Learning to be like a child
It has been a cold and gloomy Christmas in Cambridge, but I have been strangely encouraged by the families in Eden Baptist Church that have accepted me and by a short trip to the Lake District with my mother. Through these experiences, I believe that in this Christmas season, God has been revealing to me more deeply what being a child means in my daily walk with him. After growing up, I’ve lost some traits associated with children, and I probably will have to learn them again. I would sum this up in three points (1) imagination (2) to receive love (3) to feel safe.
Imagination. That is something that Spongebob would say as he draws a rainbow. Visiting the Lake District during winter meant that we have very limited daylight, but that also meant a lot of time in the hotel watching television. There were some children’s shows at night, and one that reminded me of my childhood was “Charlie and the chocolate factory”. I have been so used to notions of efficiency and Adam Smith’s labour specialisation at the back of the twenty-pound note that I’ve stopped imagining a chocolate waterfall in a factory like I would many years ago. During the little daylight, one attraction we visited in Lake District was the World of Beatrix Potter – the author of Peter Rabbit. This is a world where animals have human-like characteristics, like how a rabbit can be naughty, or how a hedgehog could be a laundry-woman, or how mice can eat doll food. At the end of the attraction, mum decided to buy the whole collection of Peter Rabbit books. Out of curiosity, I skimmed through the entire collection in the next two days. But there’s something encouraging about reading children’s stories again: I could see the animals come alive, and a large part of the fiction lives in my imagination. That is in stark contrast to the fiction that I’ve been reading the past two years where economists construct unrealistic models. The big words and coloured pictures of children storybooks have been replaced with small words and equations/ graphs/ tables. Rather than writing to stimulate one’s imagination, the authors I read now aim to communicate their idea as clearly as possible such that there’s only one correct interpretation.
How does imagination apply to Christian living? For one, we start to realise that there is a world beyond what is immediately visible. When I tell my peers that I’m a second year Singaporean economist from Hughes Hall, a multitude of stereotypes immediately fall on me – mature student, pragmatic, either going into finance or is a scholar, etc. And often people do not see beyond these stereotypes. But these stereotypes are almost inconsequential to God. He sees beyond these worldly features to who a person really is, and that is what truly matters. Perhaps, learning how to imagine and look beyond the direct and immediately obvious features of people is something I need to learn again, so that I could understand people as God sees them. Looking beyond the obvious is also applicable to biblical interpretation – which is what I have learnt when writing the winter week of prayer on John 17. Much of scripture is not immediately instructive in the sense of Jesus does X, therefore I do X as well. This involves imagining the ancient world where Jesus lived and taught, such that we can understand the text better. This might only be possible when we are not searching for immediate answers, but when we are willing to slow down and think about the story and imagine the setting (of course, informed by biblical principles). There might still be correct interpretations in many situations, but using the child-like lens of imagination can help us see people and scripture beyond what is immediately obvious.
Another facet of imagination that can be drawn out is curiosity. When meeting a person for the first time, rather than allowing stereotypes such as race and religion cloud our perception, there is value in first learning more about that person beyond those labels. And on the onset, children do not see these labels immediately. Similarly, when looking at scripture, curiosity would entail asking questions like why did Jesus say this? When did this happen, etc.? But I must admit that sometimes as I listen to sermons or Bible studies, I would presumptively think “I know what this passage is about already”, and the lack of an open heart and mind often hinders what God does through that passage. I am learning the same child-like imagination and curiosity again.
The second lesson is to receive love. As we grow up, we learn to love more than we receive love. I’d be asking how I can contribute to CF and society, or how I can love my friends to bring them to Christ. But there’s something very special about receiving love like a child. Before Christmas, I went for a short hiking trip to Pulborough (in Sussex) and stayed with a friend from Eden who lives there. Living off their hospitality was their expression of unrequited love. It has always been my childhood dream to sit on a soft carpet by a fireplace on a cold winter’s night, and I actually got to experience that! There was something quite magical about having a Christmas meal with her family and church friends, and about walking in the countryside and visiting several villages with her even though she was so busy. On Christmas day, another family from Eden brought me home with them. I had the privilege of sharing in their present-opening and looking at the joy on their faces, knowing how much someone else loves them. Quite amazingly, they gave me the entire Narnia series, which I suppose is another one of God’s signs that I should be learning to be more child-like. I felt like a child again – taking fudge off their Christmas tree (thereby thinking that fudge grows on trees), being hugged by the girls, and playing board games with the family. I have been so insanely blessed and loved by Eden this Christmas. Typically, I would be thinking about how I can make it up to them, but learning to be child-like in receiving love meant that I should simply be grateful. That’s the point of love – that it does not demand something back.
The idea of receiving love is quite central to the Christian faith. What sets Christians apart is not that they love some divine entity more than others or that they love the people around them more than others. What defines a Christian is that he has received God’s love. And it is through this reception of love that we are able to love others. On Christmas day, God brought a Chinese children’s song to mind, written based on our theme verse for this year 1 John 4:19. The second half of the chorus goes 我们爱因神先爱我们，心再坚强也不要独自飞翔，只要微笑、只要原谅，有你爱的地方就是天堂。(My translation: we love because God first loved us. Even if your heart is strong, don’t fly alone. Smile, forgive, heaven is where your love is.) We might need some theological qualification for the last line, but I’ll omit that. The upshot of this chorus was that we shouldn’t live in isolation (as I’m often tempted to do), but to love and be loved (by God and by others).
What does receiving love mean in walking with Jesus daily (after first receiving him)? That would mean the willingness to receive love from God and from God’s people. Receiving love from God’s people would look something like those Christmas experiences. Receiving love from God would look like sitting at his feet daily. Rather than always thinking about “doing” quiet time as if we are the active person in the process, it helps to think of God being the active person, and we are just listening to him, very much like how I’d sit by the fireside in Pulborough and listen to stories. An important qualification to make here is that receiving love doesn’t end like that. Just as children show love to their parents, we ought to love as well. The problem only comes when there is outflow without inflow (or conversely, inflow without outflow). We need to understand what proper loving in every season of our lives means before we are able to bless the community with that same love. Eden probably does not expect me to reciprocate that same love to them, but it would be a great joy to the body of Christ that I could show that same love to the people around me – in church, or out in the community.
The really young children might not even understand what love is, but they know what it means to feel safe. I’ve learned this when one of the girls in church remarked with reference to some toddlers, “I hope they know how much I love them.” Her mother replied, “They probably don’t, but they feel safe with you, and that’s probably as close as you can get for a kid their age”. One interesting image of feeling safe would be in the back hall after a family carol service. The minced pies were put on short tables so that the children could reach them, but there was this little girl who was too shy to get a minced pie herself. She held the hand of our youth worker and dragged her to the table so that they could get a minced pie together – she felt safe when the youth worker was with her. How often do we feel safe with God in this way? That we would not be willing to go ourselves, but we would hold God’s hand so that he could get the minced pie with us?
Feeling safe with God is probably the most important and fundamental lesson for me this Christmas. We will never perfectly understand what love really means, and we will never imagine all the possibilities as God does, but we know what it means to feel safe. Children do still get upset and get worried about things, but at the end of each day, they sleep soundly knowing that the next day would be completely new and their mistakes are erased. Most children feel safe because they know their parents are in control of their immediate circumstances. I’ve lost a lot of this naivety and innocence when growing up, as I’m worried about whether I’ll get an internship next summer, or whether my results will be good enough. But if we really do love and trust God, it makes sense to feel safe with him. Feeling safe with him would mean trusting that He is in control of all these circumstances. It also means knowing that we can do all things only through Him – probably not getting a minced pie from the table at this age, but more of having the courage to talk to someone, or writing a post/ essay. I don’t want to do these things without knowing that God is with me.
There’s definitely a lot more about childlikeness to be said, but these are the three things that I’ve learned this Christmas as I rejoice and remember His coming!