Learning from Children (and Street Musicians)

It’s a 10-year-old story, but it’s as current as today’s news. For it’s a story about the human condition — about our busy-ness, our need to always be somewhere, and how sometimes, in the process of rushing from one thing to the next, we miss the grace of the moment that is right in front of us.

At 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, 2007, at a Washington DC metro station, a guy pulled out his violin and began playing. For 43 minutes, he performed 6 classical pieces as over 1,000 people streamed by. Hardly any of them stopped to listen. No surprise there; DC commuters experience street musicians all the time.

Except, this was no ordinary street musician. This was renowned violinist Joshua Bell, playing his $3.5 million Stradivarius.

There was a lottery ticket dispenser near where Bell was playing, with as many as 5 or 6 at a time waiting to buy tickets. Not once in Bell’s 43 minutes of playing did anyone in the lottery ticket line so much as turn around to look toward Bell.

The Washington Post, which got Bell to perform, reached out to 40 of the commuters, and asked them if anything unusual happened on the way to work that day. Only one of them immediately mentioned Bell. To the other 39, it was just another commute, just another day of getting to work and doing the next thing.

But there was one group of people who always wanted to stop. Without exception, every time a child walked by, he or she tried to get the grown-up they were with to stop and watch. But every single time, the adult scooted the child along.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are like children (Mark 10.14). In the next verse, he goes even further, and says: only those who become like children will enter the kingdom.

I’ve frequently thought about what this passage means: What is Jesus telling us to become? Certainly, children are vulnerable in a way that many adults are not; they are dependent on the care and provision of others. This would have been even more evident in Jesus’ day, as children were not revered and valued as they are today. And so, to be a child is, by definition, to need others to help you along the way. And so, clearly, one element of Jesus’ call for us to be like children is to assume a position of vulnerability, need, dependence, and trust.

But the story of Joshua Bell shows another element. As someone has pointed out, children have a different view of time than adults. We grown-ups spend much of our time thinking about time. What time is it? How much more time do I have to be doing this particular thing? What time is my next thing? How can I better manage my time? And then there’s the phrase nobody wants to be accused of: Stop wasting time.

I understand that for some Africans, there is a phrase they say to Westerners who come for a visit. You have watches. We have time.

Maybe that’s another lesson children teach us. Kids, especially younger ones, don’t wear watches. They don’t worry that they’re gonna be late. They are more open to what opportunities are available right now. I mean: Why rush to the next moment when THIS moment has a guy playing his heart out on the violin?

If the invitation of Jesus is good news (and it is), then it can’t be just more of the same. It can’t be just more stuff to do; more obligations to attend to. It can’t just be a longer to-do list. It must be something more.

Something more that our children help us see. That God’s got the next day covered. And the next thing. That when we rush madly through life, we often miss life. That’s it okay to stop — to stop and receive; to stop and enjoy this moment, this gift of life, this gift of grace.

So, what are you missing by always rushing? What are you not receiving because you’re so busy going and doing? Where is it time to stop and hear the gentle whisper of God; the very music of creation? Maybe it’s where you least expect it — like on a subway stop in the form of a street musician who just might be a glimpse of grace and wonder that it takes the eyes of a child to see.



A Family Challenge: Prayer & 40 Bucks

We have had a five-year-old living with us for the past five months. He’s a cousin who needed a place to live; and for now, he is a part of our family. I’m learning what I once knew when my kids were younger: five-year-olds change things.

Before he came, everyone in our family was pretty self-sufficient. Our family — two adults and three teenagers — was a place where everyone was able to take care of themselves (most of the time). Then we added a preschooler.

One of my favorite things about having our cousin is knowing that at the end of the day (no matter how long it’s been; despite whatever challenges we have faced), bedtime is almost always a joyful experience. He loves reading from a kids Bible story book. He loves to sing a song. He loves to snuggle. The other night, my teenage girls helped put him to bed — and the four of us had a fun time just being together, and enjoying each other as another day came to an end.

This is family. No matter what the day has brought — no matter the challenges or stresses that life has brought — we can end the day with joy, knowing that we share the love of family.

In a way, every night I get to experience what I think God has in store for us — for all of us. To be family, no matter what we face. And to open our family life to others who need it.

In fact, I think this is a huge part of what Church is about. We are a family, no matter what we face. And having experienced the love of God, we open ourselves to share that love with others. If there is a door into God’s family, then I believe that on it hangs a sign that reads: “Always open.”

This past Sunday, I challenged our church to put family into practice in two ways. Between now and Easter (a traditional 40-day journey the Church has called Lent), let me encourage you to do these two things to help us be family — and extend family:

  1. Pray for someone in our church family who is different from you. If you are 50-plus, you might choose to pray for a child, or a student, or a young adult. If you are in college, you might pray for someone who is retired. If you are single, you might pray for someone who is married — and vice versa. If your primary language is English, you might pray for someone who speaks Spanish — and vice versa. Whoever it is, would you commit to praying, every day, for someone in the church who is different from you? If you do, I believe God will use your prayers, and you, to extend the unity he longs for us to have as a family.
  2. On Sunday, I gave $40 to four different kids in our church, and challenged them to take that money — and with their families — bless someone. Let me extend that challenge to everyone in our church family: set aside $40 to bless someone else. What would it look like if our whole church did that? What if every family in our church family set aside $40, beyond your normal giving, and as a family, put it to work for someone else? If you can’t do $40, do less. If $40 is too small, do more. But do something; bless someone else this Easter season. The only limit to how you do this is the creativity of your family. The key isn’t what you do, but that you do it. And do it together, with your family, or whoever you share life with.

Family takes work. Anybody who has ever lived in family knows that. Church is no different. Are you doing the hard work of building up our church? Are you looking for ways to extend church family to those who need it? This Easter, let’s do that. Together.

Laughing (and Learning) with Kids

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from a child – a kid I barely knew. I was visiting my sister and her family who serve a church in New York City. We were with them one Sunday, and after the service, we did some sightseeing. Along for the ride was Jermaine, a neighbor kid who lived next door to my sister.

We visited Central Park, and then went for a look around the American Museum of Natural History. As we walked along, we came across a display with a manatee in it. Jermaine, reflecting on the lesson that morning at church, said, “So that’s what the Israelites ate.”

I love kids. There is something about their innocence and lack of inhibitions that makes for a wonderful – and sometimes wonderfully hilarious – combination.

Jermaine’s hysterical, and almost correct insight, happened over 4 years ago. Sadly, I have yet to find a way to work it into a sermon or a lesson.

But it fits this week’s blog, as I reflect on some recent interactions I have had with kids in three different settings.

One: I invited several children to join me on stage at church on Sunday to talk about the series we just completed, Discover Your Mission Now. And so on Sunday I found myself talking with Liam (age 7) about what he has learned. God wants us to be nice, he said. That’s a nice, safe answer. But then Liam proceeded to challenge his middle school brother to put that message into practice. It was as if Liam had been waiting all seven years of his life to finally get an audience and a microphone, and he wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. This message is for you, Landon!

Second encounter: Our church hosted the Asante Children’s Choir last week. It was a great time with some wonderful African kids. They were sweet, polite (calling us men, “Uncles,” and the women, “Aunties”), and they never stopped hugging us.

Before their concert, we fed them dinner, and I sat with five of them as they ate. I asked the children how old they thought I was. Three of them guessed that I was in my 20s, and one suggested that I was only 18. And this was the same kid who had guessed, completely on his own, that I am the minister. Eighteen and the minister? I think I was still learning to tie my shoes when I was 18….

The third encounter, unlike the other two encounters, is ongoing. About a month ago, our family opened our home to a four-year-old boy who is a distant relative. He needs a place to stay for several months, and so we decided our family would be a good place for him for as long as he needs us.

And what a fun month it has been, as we get back into the groove of having a preschooler around. He is active. He loves to laugh. And he came to our house never having given anyone “knuckles” (you know; where two people bump knuckles together). So, I was proud to teach him that.

He talks in a way that makes us smile. Through him, I have learned that my first name has at least two syllables – as he calls me Uncle Ja-eff. He enjoys playing “way-gos” (legos), and his favorite drink is “choc-it” milk.

And he’s learning some things about church. After walking through our worship space at church, he asked about the pool of water up front. It’s a baptistery, we told him. “What’s a bad mystery?” he asked. I tried to answer that question, as best as I could – at least in regard to what a baptistery is.

But you know, I think he’s half right in his description. How God loves us and changes us and gives us new life is certainly not bad, but it is a mystery – one I can’t fully understand or explain. And I’m glad I don’t have to. I simply need to embrace and receive it.

And come to think of it – isn’t the same thing true of children?