Jesus Loves the Little Children

Week of Monday, August 27, 2001

My wife is an elementary school teacher in the public schools, and each fall she receives a “Student Placement Card” for each one of her new students. This card gives a brief overview of her kids given by the student's previous year teacher, functioning as a sort of “heads up” on where the child is academically, socially, and so on. I have these cards in front of me as I write and here are some comments:

  • hearing impaired, one parent blind and the other deaf
  • low in both reading and math
  • triplet, moved from out of state, transferred due to overflow
  • mother has brain cancer
  • Asperger's Syndrome (normal intelligence but autistic-like social skills)
  • great social problems
  • English as second language, mid-year transfer, socially sophisticated
  • bright, happy, likable, very immature
  • kidney problem, needs lots of water and trips to the bathroom
  • parents divorcing, withdraws under stress
  • remedial needs in reading, speech, special ed
  • great kid, wonderful family, but very high anxiety
  • hearing impaired
About half the kids are in after school programs. As my wife showed me these cards, she joked that she was the one who was highly anxious. How could she ever meet the wide assortment of deep needs in these kids?

One of the interesting aspects of teaching is that it provides a window onto our modern culture, a sort of barometer of human need that exists all around us. I often kid my wife that at the beginning of the school year she should tell her parents—especially the pushy ones who act like they know everything and for whom the schools are never quite good enough—”if you don't believe everything you hear about my classroom, I won't believe everything I hear about your family.” Truly, some of the things she sees, hears and experiences are hard to believe. If we but open our eyes and ears to those around us, we will see similar things.

I am sure that if you could view a similar type of “Placement Card” for each person at your office, store, university or place of business, they would contain remarks very similar to those of my wife's students, perhaps worse. What would your own card say? Your next door neighbor's? What about your office partner? It is easy to imagine: obsessive anxiety about teenage children, financial burdens, aging parents, family dysfunction, missed car payments and so on. Just this morning I was talking with my neighbor, who expressed fears that despite owning a successful small business, his wife and kids knew absolutely nothing about the business. Should he die, it would all be auctioned off for pennies on the dollar.

When I think about the needs of these school kids, I am reminded how often in dealing with people I fail to see them as normal people who, as a friend of mine once remarked, “laugh at weddings and cry at funerals.” Rather, I often project my own envy, suspicion, insecurity or jealousy onto people: so-n-so is rich, that person is absolutely brilliant, that neighbor has it made. Or I deal in stereotypes to label people (ethnic, financial, and so on) rather than take the time and energy to get to know them for who they really are.

This problematic way of dealing with people becomes immediately transparent when you read a good biography of a famous person you (wrongly) think you “know.” Suddenly they emerge as all too frail and human. In some of my recent reading I've learned some fascinating but deeply human aspects about Bach (spent time in jail), Henri Nouwen (nervous breakdown, chronically insecure), Thomas Jefferson (died so deeply in debt that Monticello was auctioned after his death), and Mozart (pathologically domineering father, incredibly witty vulgarity, incurable spendthrift).

One of the most attractive and moving features of Jesus is that he loved people in a deeply personal way, for who they were and where they were at. Tempted like us in all ways, Jesus is gentle, sympathizing with our many weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15, 5:2). When children were brought to Jesus to bless them and pray for them, the disciples rebuked those who had brought them; but Jesus “placed His hands on them” and said that the kingdom belonged to such as them (Matthew 19:13–15). Upon seeing the large crowds, “he had compassion upon them, for they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:35–37). To the religiously and socially stigmatized leper, Jesus did something no person in His day ever would have done. “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man” (Mark 1:40–42). Encountering a widow whose only child had just died, “his heart went out to her” (Luke 7:13). Overcome at the death of Lazarus and the pain of his family, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

In contrast to Jesus there is Jonah. God called him to preach to the pagan Ninevites. At long last, and grudgingly, he did. But then he received what for him was the worst possible news, that the Ninevites had repented. Jonah 4:1 says this turn of events “greatly displeased Jonah.” God responded, in one of my favorite verses of the Bible, “should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right hand and left hand?” (Jonah 4:11).

I have become increasingly uncomfortable with much modern social commentary by some of our evangelical leaders. Much of it strikes me as unduly negative, adversarial, acerbic and combative. It reminds me of the response of James and John when Jesus encountered opposition on the part of the hated Samaritans: “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:54). The problem is not that their analyses of our social ills and cultural decay is inaccurate. I'm just left to wonder where the compassion quotient is. Rather than fostering divisive stereotypes about how pagan our public schools are, for example, why not instead encourage the saints to see an Armando who is brilliant but socially maladjusted, or a Sarah who is anxiety ridden because her parents are divorcing, and how a follower of Jesus in their midst might shine as a ray of light and love, or engender a morsel of hope and encouragement?

Rather than deal in misleading stereotypes and convenient labels, I pray to love people like Jesus did. He reminds me to love and do good to all people, for God Himself “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35), He causes “the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44–46). Similarly, Paul urges us that “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people” (Galatians 6:10).

My wife's “Placement Cards” also remind me that every believer is a minister, and there is no ultimate distinction between a “sacred” and “secular” calling. What could possibly be more sacred than serving kids with needs like those above, or the similar ones wherever you find yourself? In Paul's words, “through us God spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him.” Like my wife, Paul admitted his own anxieties over the breadth and depth of human need we encounter, that none of us is “equal to such a task.” We carry the Gospel treasure in our own, very earthen vessels. But whether at an elementary school, at the office, on a road trip, or simply in our own homes, through the power of the Holy Spirit may others detect in us “the fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:14–16; 4:7).

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.