He was still wandering through the world for the first time. As a matter of fact, at 16 months, even the tricky business of maintaining his balance while perched on top of his stumpy legs was still something of a challenge. When he walked, it was with a stiff-legged gait that required him to throw his body from side to side like a tiny Frankenstein.
It was the foot-washing station that drew him back, again and again, during the two weeks I took my shifts as his guardian angel.
For me, it was a handy way to wash the sand from my feet when coming from the beach. At a height designed to spray the feet no more than halfway up the calf, it was also the perfect height for him to explore a world we take for granted.
For him, it put a fountain of delight and mystery exactly at the height of his hands.
Cool water sprayed from the nozzle, in some places as a fine mist, in others as a biting stream. I watched as he tasted a bit of spray that landed in his open mouth and then bent down for a larger draught. That proved to be more challenging than it should have been, but he persisted. The water was good and cold, and we were hot and thirsty. I stayed thirsty.
It is nearly 25 years since the youngest of my children explored the world like this and I don’t remember watching them the way I now watched my grandson. Probably the luxury of taking a shift, then going back to my own world of important things allowed me to watch with my own unencumbered curiosity.
Like a little child
And as I watched him I was reminded of when, nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus watched the children and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14–15).
What is it Jesus saw in children that would make him so unequivocal?
It’s not merely their curiosity. The same curiosity about the clean, cold water flowing from a tap is also there for the glowing elements of a stove. Without an angel lurking in the background, raw curiosity is a very dangerous thing.
It’s not merely their helpless acquiescence to their parents when they were brought to Jesus. If being in the arms of Jesus weren’t a pleasant thing, those same children would have protested with all the wriggling cries of their species.
It’s not merely their innocence. Even at 16 months old, petulance and anger show their deep roots. When the tap was turned off, it may as well have been a cosmic injustice. The myth of childhood innocence rarely lasts for more than a few months.
It’s not even merely eyes that see things for the first time. After all, life must become ordinary and commonplace for us to function well. In time, he’ll learn to walk with a smooth unconscious gait precisely because he’ll be able to stop thinking about gravity with each step he takes.
But it’s a mixture of all of these that makes up the childlikeness Jesus demands from kingdom people. These are what you see when you follow a child around. Curiosity, helplessness, innocence, and awe are the marks of the child – and yet we are told we must grow up (1 Corinthians 13:11). There is an enigma here.
Watching my grandson and reflecting on the words of Jesus, another quote came to mind: “The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians” (G.K. Chesterton).
And maybe that is also part of the puzzle. Something happens inside us when we watch the child and when we reflect on the Scriptures, and we know that something profound is going on here; but in the end, kingdom insight is a little like a child drinking by licking the spray of a foot-washing station.
It’s not very efficient.
But the child drinks while adults watch and stay thirsty, and no one will ever enter the kingdom without drinking its water.