Kim was four years old when I met her. Afflicted with AIDS from her Wall Street lawyer father, who was an IV drug user, Kim was a patient at Nassau County Medical Center on Long Island, where I was a Chaplain. It was a heart breaking case, but I did learn just how deep children’s spiritual life can be.
Kim talked about a lot of things with me. She wanted to know what God looked like, if God had big feet and hands, or just a big head where, she said, all God’s thoughts were kept. And what about God’s heart, Kim wanted to know. I think God has a small heart, she insisted, because a small heart can be fixed faster than a big one. God’s heart gets broken a lot. That’s what my Nana told me, she said.
Why consider the spiritual life of children? Oh yes, their comments are often amusing and delightful, but more than this, their voices are a reminder about what lurks deep within all own souls and psyches, child as well as adult. Paul Tillich, one of the great Protestant theologians of the 20th century, pointed out that “the real mark of depth is its simplicity. Nothing of real importance is ever too profound for anyone,” he insisted. And so children are indeed grasped by these deep things, which is why Jesus not only welcomed children, but also said that God’s kingdom belongs to them. Children are open to the depths, open to mystery.
Robert Coles, a renown Harvard psychiatrist, who won a Pulitzer Prize for series, Children of Crisis, wrote a book about 25 years ago, The Spiritual Life of Children, in which he related what children have said through words or pictures about their spiritual lives. He discovered that even if children never had any formal religious training, many of them will still think of God.
One little boy, when asked by Coles to draw God, had a great deal of difficulty with the eyes. Coles noted that most children tended to use coloring for God similar to their own. But this little boy of eight said, "I have brown eyes; my sister has blue eyes, but God should have eyes like everyone, because God belongs to everyone. He's all colors, so I guess I won't use these crayons. I'll just use a pencil. And then he said, “God is like a shadow.”
"But if he's a shadow, said 8 year old Betsy, that means he's grey. How can God be all colors if he's a grey shadow?"
"Well," Hal answered, God can be anything he wants."
"You mean, said Betsy, "that God can change the way he looks? You mean God isn't always the same?"
"Oh yea, Hal insisted, “that's the most important thing about God. He changes. God is never the same. That’s how he gets our attention. If God was only ONE way, we would never notice.
Betsy wasn't convinced. "How do you know?" she asked.
"I told the priest about my idea and he said I was right!"
"But how does the priest know?" Betsy demanded. Where did he get his information?"
From God, Hal said. Yea, said Betsy, very skeptically. That’s what the priest wants you to believe.
Another boy named Larry shared Betsy’s skepticism about priestly knowledge. "We can't be sure that the priest is right,” he insisted. He guesses the same way that we all do. Larry then drew a God with large eyes and ears, because God sees and hears everyone and everything. At the bottom of his drawing, he wrote a caption: “Watch Out; God will spot you!"
An Islamic child, confused and worried about the variations of God's messages in different religions, and he told Coles that one night he had a dream in which Allah came to him and said, "Pray to be worried all your life as you are now. Pray that you don't put your worries away in some closet." So what do you think that means? Coles asked. And the boy answered, “I guess it means that God wants me to think about things and not just settle for answers.”
An 11 year old boy from Sweden (with almost no religious traning) told Coles that he worried about hell, but not for the reasons most people do, he insisted. “Hell is not a place that God puts you in. You put yourself there. You’re stuck, stuck with yourself, and with all that's weighing you down from your life. Taking a ruler and a pencil, he drew a line, and said, “Heaven is to the left and hell is to the right. He looked at his picture, and then said, "I think I made a mistake just then. I made the difference between heaven and hell too clear. He erased the pencil line, and let his heaven gradually merge into hell. Heaven and hell are tricky places, he said. You may think you are in one place and then discover that you are really in another!”
Paul Tillich was right; the deep things are accessible to us all, including children. And we learn from them. As Robert Coles wrote in his book, “All of us, at one time or another are “wanderers, explorers, adventurers, stragglers and ramblers, sometimes tramps and vagabonds, even fugitives, but now and then we are pilgrims: as children, as parents, as old ones. And how young we are when we start wondering about it all, the nature of the journey and the final destination."
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!