Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” —Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16
When I was a child, some places made me wish I were a turtle so I could draw back into my shell and hide: The doctor’s office. The soccer field (I was a terrible athlete). Under the bridge where some kids got in fights after school. Any place with limited lighting and no adults.
Thankfully, there were far more places that made me feel like a carefree lamb, able to wander freely with the confidence that I was safe, and that I belonged: The backyard with Mom close by. My maternal grandfather’s lap as he read me books. The playground at school (most days). The choir room and Sunday School rooms at the church, where my friends sang and learned and laughed and played. My paternal grandfather’s arms when he literally called me “my little lamb.”
Having safe spaces of inclusion to outnumber and overpower the ones that made me draw back into myself and want to run away was crucial to my formation. And most of those spaces that nurtured my lamb self into who I might become were not happenstance. Those spaces were made with intention and care.
Making safe space appears to be important to Jesus. The writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus insisting that children be given space to get close to him. His lesson for the adults suffocating him with their anxiousness was as important in that context as it is in ours: “Don’t be so insistent on getting what you think you need for yourself that you leave no room for children. Make safe space for them so that they can feel unhindered and free to be themselves, and to come to know me and all that I am; because the more they know me, the less they will feel so unwanted and afraid that they draw back into themselves.”
Next week, June 12-16, our church family is offering its first Vacation Bible School in 17 years for preK through 5th grade children. The VBS curriculum, “Who Do You Say I Am?,” examines five of Jesus’ “I am” statements found in the Gospel of John: I am the vine; I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the good shepherd; I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Kids will use the theme of detective work and mystery-solving to embark on daily “missions,” gathering clues and attempting to decipher the phrases Jesus uses to describe himself in Scripture. Sounds fun! And after all the gleeful gumshoeing and silly sleuthing, our children will know more about who Jesus is, and how important and loved they are in the eyes of that good shepherd.
Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying, “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.” At first glance, our collective soul looks more hostile than hospitable these days. Books being banned that teach children our full history. Kids finding more accessibility to relationships in social media than in their immediate environments. Shootings in schools. Gender-affirming care being banned for youth. But when the cryptic metanarrative layer of hostility is peeled back, something else is revealed: adults making safe space for children and youth in their churches, synagogues and mosques; in their classrooms, kitchens, and backyards; in their homes, hearts, and wide open arms. This revelation is hopeful and true. It is a reminder that we adults must not look at the current hostilities of this present age and draw back into ourselves out of fear and indifference; rather, we must cling to our faith and heed the insistence of Jesus—our vine; our bread of life; our world’s light; our good shepherd; our way, truth, and life—who teaches us to make safe space for one another, especially the children in our midst, that they would not ever be hindered from drawing close to a love that will not let them go; a love that calls them, “My little lamb;” a love that says, “Come out of your shell and be who God dreamed you to be.”