Nursery Songs

(June 21:  Second Sunday of series on “Our Favorite Hymns.”  This week’s hymn is “Jesus Loves Me.”)

Matthew 18:1-5

There have only been a few times in my life that I didn’t really go to church. For some of that time, I was working at the cafeteria during lunch service on Sundays—our busiest time of the week—and needed to be there about half an hour before our worship service began. But when I was in Coffeyville, even if I didn’t attend worship, I still went to Sunday school. Up in Wichita I had a short period of time where I wasn’t part of a church. But it was a short period of time. And when I moved to Oregon I didn’t go for the first few months. Other than those short intervals, I have pretty much always gone to church.

My mom took me from the time I was little—I know this, because some of my earliest memories are of the nursery at First Southern Baptist Church. I remember two things from that time. One was that we must have been cutting up or something one morning, and the teacher said, “You better quiet down, or the minister will scold you.” (I had no idea what “scold” meant, but it sounded like something I didn’t want to have happen.) And the other memory was of singing “Jesus Loves Me.”

There was always music in my life: my mom played the radio most days while she was doing one thing or another; and sometimes when she wanted to get me out of her hair she’d put a record on and sit me down in front of the stereo; and when we went anywhere in the car the radio was on, or if we were in Grandma and Grandpa’s car, a lot of times they were singing. But “Jesus Loves Me” was probably the first song I remember learning to sing by myself. And I remember, after we changed to First Baptist Church downtown, we sang it as a regular hymn on Sunday morning a few times.

“Jesus Loves Me,” our favorite hymn for today, was suggested by two of our youngest members. They picked it because they know all the words. But I think it’s a favorite for a lot of us who are much older than Kaed and Chael are.

One time, not too terribly long after I got here, I was in the Tuesday morning group and was picking out hymns for the next Sunday. (That’s where I pick them every week; since the organist, pianist, and worship chair, not to mention one of our substitute organists, are all members of that group, I can get some pretty good feedback about what I’m thinking about picking.) One morning we were sitting around that table drinking our coffee, and I was picking hymns, and I must have picked some unfamiliar or difficult ones the week before, because Bev said, “I don’t know why we can’t sing more songs we know.”

I have got a little bit of an ornery streak in me, so when she said that, in the back of my mind I thought, “Well, I’ll show you.” And I picked “Jesus Loves Me” for the next Sunday. When we sang it, I caught Bev’s eye so she knew why I’d picked it, and we’ve had many a laugh over it since then.

If you have been in church your whole life, there’s probably not a hymn in the book you know better, or have known longer, than this one—at least the first verse. And it remains popular even among adults. Some might be prepared to dismiss it as just a nursery song, a simplistic, childish expression of a simplistic, childish faith.

But somebody once asked Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, what his most profound discovery had been in all of his years studying theology. His reply was, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.” If the likes of Karl Barth saw it as profound, then I don’t think we need to put it away with other childish things.

Besides, not everything that is childlike—there is, as I’m sure you can probably understand, a big difference between childlike and childish—not everything that is childlike needs to be put away when we become adults; and certainly the knowledge that Jesus loves us is on the list of things we can hang onto. Not only that, but in our Scripture reading for today, Jesus actually commends childlikeness for those who follow him…

Like when he tells parables, Jesus doesn’t really tell the disciples what, specifically, it is about a child that they need to emulate in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, other than humility. Humility is something we don’t necessarily picture children as being nowadays. But in Jesus’ day, children were property, and until they got to a certain age they had very little to offer in return for the food, clothing, shelter, and education their families had to give them; so they were definitely humble, the lowliest members of a family.

Both then and now, very small children are totally dependent on someone to care for them. They cannot earn a living, or provide for their own needs; they can’t cook their own food or even change their own clothes when they’re really little. Perhaps that also is what Jesus meant: to be Jesus’ disciples and to be part of God’s kingdom, we have to recognize and accept that we are totally dependent on God to provide for our needs. That’s a pretty tough thing for us to hear, immersed as we are in a culture that values independence and self-sufficiency almost to the point of idolatry.

But like most of the images Jesus presents to us to show what God’s kingdom and the people who belong to it are like, this one can be interpreted in a great variety of ways.

Matthew 18:3 is Mike’s favorite Scripture. When he told me that, he told me a story to explain why.

In 1955, Mike’s mother and he moved to Waco, Texas, so she could attend Baylor University. It wasn’t too long after they moved there that the two of them had to go to the laundromat, and there Mike saw something he had never seen before (since he’d only lived in California and Illinois up to that point). Instead of one water fountain, this place had two, and there were signs above them, which he couldn’t read, but Ann told him what they said. One said “White,” and the other said “Colored.”

Ann got busy starting their laundry, while Mike stood and pondered those signs and those water fountains. Before too long he went over and ran some water out of each. He was surprised to discover that the same water came out of both of the fountains. He thought maybe the water coming out of the “Colored” fountain would be blue, or green, or maybe look like a rainbow. But no, it was clear just like the other one.

So he went and asked his mom about it. She couldn’t really give him a good answer, even though he persisted, beyond that in Texas it was a rule that black people had to drink from their own water fountain. Finally she just had to shush him, because she was concerned what others there might overhear, and she sure didn’t want to have him pin her down so she’d have to say what she thought about segregation. They were new in town, and it just wasn’t safe to have that kind of conversation in a public place.

Mike says he never forgot those two fountains, putting out exactly the same water. He never forgot that at five years old, he was completely baffled by the whole idea of racial segregation.

“Mother, why are there two fountains?”

“Daddy, why did that boy go into that church and kill all those people?”

“Well, honey, some people don’t believe black people are like us, and they hate them and are afraid of them.”

“Why?”

In those questions, especially that last one, I think we may have another answer to why Jesus calls on us to become like little children. As adults we harden ourselves to the grim realities of our world, like poverty and racism. We build homes and communities and lives where we can be insulated from the reality of others’ lives. But the child still sees, and asks, “Why?”

Why?

And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We learned another little song in the nursery at First Southern:

“Jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world,
red and yellow, black and white:
they are precious in his sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

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