Matters at Hand (a New Year Reflection)
"Fork in the Road"
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
~ Matthew 18:3
So here it is, the first day of the new year. So much anticipation. The above bible verse came to me last evening while contemplating the prospects of all the possibilities of the new year ahead, like a blank page waiting to be written. A clean slate.
I personally have found that in order to make changes in my life I not only have to make changes in my habits but also myself as well. Like the old Buddhist saying goes, “change comes from within.”
The above passage is interesting to me for a number of reasons, especially when thought of in metaphorical terms (which is basically how I treat most of the bible). This said, let’s look at this in a sort of deconstruction, or in sections.
In the first portion of the passage Jesus tells his disciples that unless they change they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. This is from the New International Version, but in other versions the word “change” may be translated as “turn around” or “convert.” Interestingly, the word repent comes from Greek and one of its means is to “turn around” or to “change one’s way of thinking.” I bring this up to counter the negative connotations the word repent often conjures. And also (along these same lines) when John was in the desert baptizing and preaching he would cry out, “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). This is also one of the first quotes of Jesus when he began his public ministry (Matthew 4:17). Think about this sentence in this way… Repent (think differently or change your ways) because the kingdom is at hand (or the kingdom is right in front of you). This is spelled out explicitly in the Gospel of Thomas (saying 113), “the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and people do not see it."
So then, how do we do this? How do we see/enter the kingdom in this life? Well, we are told clearly to “become like little children.” But what does that mean? Are we supposed to act like imbeciles or babies? No, I don’t think so. I’ll give my thoughts on what this means with a brief story.
Recently I was at the local Jewish Community Center where I swim. I had just arrived and was locking up my bike when a father and his young daughter exited the building. It was snowing big fat flakes; they slowly cascaded down to earth. Upon seeing this, the young girl spreads her arms wide, lifted her face skyward and shrieked, “Daddy, it’s snowing!” She then stuck out her tongue and gleefully caught flakes on it as they walked. The father, seeing me, sighed in a low voice, “Yes, it is snowing...again.” The difference is obvious. The young girl was so excited and in awe that in some ways she was experiencing her own slice of heaven right there in the JCC parking lot. Her father, on the other hand, was not; he was miserable.
So my thought on this is that if we change (mostly our thinking) then we too can have what the little girl had, or at least glimpses of it. What the bible passage is saying, I believe, is that we should attempt to be in awe of everyday events, everyday miracles. When we were children everything was new and interesting and innocent, but then somewhere along the way as we grew into adults we began acting like adults, stifling our sense of awe in the everyday activities. When I think about it, I feel as though I should be in awe at the very fact that I awake every morning, at the miracle of this living body that I currently inhabit.
This year I want to return to awe, that sense of innocence. It will not be easy, and it will take work and conscious effort, but I do think it is possible. This, after all, is what we’ve been told for more than two millennia. Even longer if you look at other traditions. To put this in Buddhist terms, this could be compared to being present, or mindful; seeing and appreciating what is right in front of us at this very moment. Walking the middle path. After all, the past is history and the future is just a dream at this point. All we have is the moment in which we live. All we have is now.