I hate hiccups.
Fortunately, when I was growing up, my dad had a foolproof cure for the hiccups. It was a method that he had learned from his grandfather.
When my dad was little and got the hiccups, Papa Howell would sit him on his lap and perform a series of taps on his grandson’s back with his knuckles. The pattern was a secret, but the results spoke for themselves: every time, the hiccups were cured.
I benefited from this top-secret method myself as a child, even though Papa Howell had been dead many years by the time I got my first case of the hiccups. My dad would sit me on his lap and tap, tap-tap, tap, tap-tap-tap, tap.
When I was a child, I did not know that this was neither magic nor medicine. All I knew was that it worked. It worked because I believed that it would. My dad’s hiccups went away not because of the tapping pattern but because he trusted Papa Howell.
Of course, now that I know how the hiccup cure works—well, it doesn’t work anymore. My not knowing created a space that could only be filled by trust, but now that space is no longer there. And so the other night I suffered through an obnoxious bout of the hiccups with no relief.
What is it about the trust of a child that we find so compelling? To look at it one way, my trust in Papa Howell’s method was naïve, ignorant, even foolish—and yet now I almost wish I could slip back into that not knowing. Some days I feel accomplished and wise even at the tender age of 26, and yet often I see how what I know gets in the way of what I need.
Sometimes we long to have faith like a child. In fact, in Luke we see Jesus basically commanding us to have faith like a child.
We tend to make a mistake with this passage, however. When we think about Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me,” we think—how sweet. That is adorable.
But in Jesus’ time, children were not sweet. They were not cute. Children were neither to be seen nor to be heard. In that day and age, children were looked down upon. When Jesus invites them forward, he is not playing the role of a politician kissing babies. He is making a statement about the worth of the smallest, the weakest, and the most vulnerable in society.
So, according to this passage, to “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” is not about being sweet or cute. It is about being vulnerable. It is about approaching Jesus, God incarnate, not knowing how he will make you whole but trusting that he can.
There is a difference between being childish and being childlike. Most of us here would, I think, agree that children are not angels. We’re focusing on childlike faith and trust tonight, but we know that there is plenty of childish meanness and immaturity and stubbornness and irresponsibility in children of all ages.
A few months ago, I had an epiphany about my use of the phrase, “I know.” I realized that I had come to believe that being an adult meant knowing things. But I slowly came to realize that even as I am learning new things every day, often the most mature thing I can say is “I don’t know.”
The more I learn, the more questions I have. The more I know, the more important it is for me to admit how much I don’t know.
In the church, we put an emphasis on learning and growing in our faith. But knowing things about God is not the same as knowing God. Sometimes knowing things about God helps us grow in love and trust of God, and sometimes it doesn’t.
In fact, Oswald Chambers says sometimes our task is not to learn but to unlearn. He talks about trials and confusions as clouds and says this:
“It is not true to say that God wants to teach us something in our trials. Through every cloud He brings our way, He wants us to unlearn something. His purpose in using the cloud is to simplify our beliefs until our relationship with Him is exactly like that of a child—a relationship simply between God and our own souls… Is our relationship with God becoming more simple than it has ever been?”
We can look at clouds from both sides, from up and down, and still find we really don’t know clouds at all. And maybe that’s the point. We do not need a more complex relationship with God. We need a much simpler one.
In the 14th century, an anonymous Christian writer composed a book called The Cloud of Unknowing as a guide to contemplative prayer. The premise of the book is that the best way to know God is to forget everything you know about God. God is found not by the mind but by the heart.
The author writes, “For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting.”
We are called to step into the cloud of forgetting, the cloud of unknowing, the cloud of unlearning. We can only do that when we have trust.
So what is it that we are trusting? We have to be careful not to go so far as to say we can’t know anything of God, for then our trust would have no source or goal. We can know God and do know God by one thing and as one thing: love.
Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic I am constantly quoting, experienced a series of visions during an illness and spent the rest of her life trying to understand them. It only took her a decade and a half to get an answer.
She says, “And from the time that [the vision] was shown, I desired often to know what our Lord’s meaning was. And fifteen years and more afterward I was answered in my spiritual understanding, thus: ‘Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Keep yourself therein and you shall know and understand more in the same. But you shall never know nor understand any other thing, forever.’”
Karl Barth was a Swiss theologian, considered by some to be the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century. His magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics, takes up about 3 feet of my bookshelf.
There is an oft-repeated story about Barth that is relevant to our subject tonight. Barth was once asked to summarize all of his writing. All of it. He paused, and then he said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
In all of his learning and knowing and understanding, Barth did not lose sight of what mattered: “Love was his meaning.”
Jesus loves me, this I know. The most nuanced descriptions of the incarnation cannot capture what it means that God is love and that love became flesh. The most elaborate theories of the atonement cannot give us access to salvation. The soundest sacramental theology does not grant us the grace we are offered in bread and wine. For these great mysteries, we call down the cloud of unknowing and step out in childlike faith.
One 17th-century hymn captures the connection between love and not knowing:
My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
And centuries later, a British rock band reinterpreted that hymn:
My song is love
My song is love unknown
And it goes on
You don’t have to be alone
Jesus loves me, this I know. Love was his meaning, and love calls us to come to his arms, to receive the kingdom as a little child, and to know that we are never alone.
And when we do, we can unlearn how to cure the hiccups.
Sarah S. Howell