|And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them.| Matthew xviii.2.
Everything has its mission. I speak not now of the office which each part of the great universe discharges. I speak not of the relation between these parts, -- that beautiful ordinance by which the whole is linked together in one common life, by which the greatest is dependent upon the least, and the least shares in the benefactions of the greatest. In this sense, everything has, strictly, its mission. But I speak of the influence, the instruction, which everything has, or may have, for the soul of man. The flower, and the star, the grass of the field, the outspread ocean, are full of lessons; they perform a mission to our spiritual nature, if we will receive it. We may pass them by as simply material forms, the decorations or conveniencies(sic) of this our natural life. But if we will come to them in a religious spirit, and study all their meaning, they will be to us ministers of God, impressive and eloquent as human lips, and filled with truths instructive as any that man can utter.
Jesus illustrated his teachings by these objects. He made everything that was at hand perform a mission for the human soul. The lilies of the field were clothed with spiritual suggestion, and the fowls of the air, as they flew through the trackless firmament, bore a lesson of truth and consolation. As if to show that there is nothing, however small, that is insignificant, and that has not its mission, he selected the falling sparrow to be a minister of wisdom, and dignified the wayside well as a clear and living oracle of the divinest truth.
In the instance before us, the object selected was a little child. In reply to the question, |Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?| Jesus set this little one in the midst of his disciples and said, |Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.| Thus did he rebuke their sensuous ideas of greatness by a spiritual truth, and make a little child the teacher of profound and beautiful wisdom. I do not propose, however, at this time, to dwell upon the precise doctrines which Christ taught in the instance, but having, as it were, the little child set in our midst, to draw from it further lessons that may do us good. In one word, I propose to speak of the mission of little children.
In using this term |mission,| I wish to have no obscurity about my meaning. I refer, by it, to the influence which little children may exert upon us, -- to the effects which they may produce, -- rather than to any direct object which they can have in view, or for which they set themselves to work. They may be unconscious missionaries; indeed, to a great extent, they are so. But so are the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Yet if we believe that God is the ordainer of all wisdom and of all good, that he uses an object or event in numberless ways, and makes it the unconscious instrument of many of his plans, then we may say that children are sent by him for the express purpose of producing these effects, and in that sense have a mission.
I pass to consider some of the modes in which that mission is accomplished.
I. Little children give us a sincere and affectionate manifestation of human nature. I know that even a child will soon become artful, and imbibe the spirit of dealing and of policy. But in a strongly comparative sense, the child is artless. The thoughts of the heart leap spontaneously from the lips. The bubbling impulse is closely followed by the action. Its desire, its aversion, its love, its curiosity, are expressed without modification. The broken prattle, those half-pronounced words, are uttered with clear, ringing tones of sincerity. There is no coil of deceit about the heart. There are no secrets chambered in the brain. The countenance has put on no disguise. There is no manoeuvring with lips or actions, no suspicion or plotting in the eyes. It is simple human nature fresh from the hands of God, with all its young springs in motion, trying themselves in their simplicity and their newness. The eyes open upon the world, not with speculation, but with wonder. To them, the ancient hills and the morning stars are just created, new phenomena burst upon them every moment, and nature in a thousand channels pours itself into the young soul. And how soon it learns the meaning of a mother's smile, and the protection of a father's hand! How soon the fountains of affection are unsealed and the mystery of human love takes possession of the hear! But the tides of that love are controlled by no calculation, are fettered by no proprieties, but flow artlessly and freely.
Humanity soon runs into deceit, and the sincerest man wears a mask. We cannot trust our most familiar friends, to the whole extent. We all retain something in our inmost hearts that nobody knows but we and God. The world bids us be shrewd and politic. We walk in a mart of selfishness. Eyes stare upon us, and we are afraid of them. We meet as traders, as partisans, as citizens, as worshippers, as friends-brothers, if you will-but we must not express all we think, we must school ourselves in some respects, -- must adopt some conventionalities. There is some degree of isolation between ourselves and every other one. But from the world's strife and sordidness, its wearisome forms and cold suspicions, we may turn to the sanctity of home, and if we have a child there, we shall find affection without alloy, a welcome that leaps from the heart in sunshine to the face, and speaks right from the soul; -- a companion who is not afraid or ashamed of us, who makes no calculation about our friendship, who has faith in it, and requires of us perfect faith in return, and whose sincerity rebukes our worldliness, and makes us wonder at the world. And if all this makes us better and happier, if it keeps our hearts from hardness and attrition, if it begets in us something of the same sincerity, and hallows us with something of the same affection, if it softens and purifies us at all, then do not children, in this respect perform a mission for us?
And shall we not learn from them more confidence in human nature, seeing that |the child is father to the man,| and that much that seems cold and hard in men may conceal the remains of childhood's better feeling? And, also, shall it not make us deplore and guard against those influences which can change the sincere and loving child into the deceitful and selfish man-that cover the spring of genuine feeling with the thick rime of worldliness, and petrify the tender chords of the heart into rough, unfeeling sinews? The man should not be, in all respects, as the child. The child cannot have the glory of the man. If it is not polluted by his vices, it is not ennobled by his virtues. But in so much as the child awakens in us tenderness, and teaches us sincerity, and counteracts our coarser and harder tendencies, and cheers us in our isolation from human hearts, by binding us close with a warm affection, and sheds ever around our path the mirrored sunshine of our youth and our simplicity, in so much the child accomplishes for us a blessed mission.
II. Children teach us faith and confidence. Man soon becomes proud with reason, and impatient of restraint. He thinks he knows, or ought to know, the whole mystery of the universe. It is not easy for him to take anything upon trust, or to lie low in the hand of God. But the child is full of faith. He is not old enough to speculate, and the things he sees are to him so strange and wonderful that he can easily believe in |the things that are unseen.| He propounds many questions, but entertains no doubts as to God and heaven. And what confidence has he in his father's government and his mother's providence!
I do not say, here, that a man's faith should be as a child's faith. Man must examine and reason, contend with doubt, and wander through mystery. But I would have him cherish the feeling that he too is a child, the denizen of a Father's house, and have sufficient confidence in that Father to trust his goodness; and to remember, if things look perplexed and discordant to him, that his vision is but a child's vision-he cannot see all. Indeed, there is a beautiful analogy between a child in its father's house and man in the universe, and much there is in the filial sentiment that belongs to both conditions. Beautifully has it been shown by a recent writer how the natural operation of this sentiment in the child's heart, and in the sphere of home, stands somewhat in the place of that religion which man needs in his maturer conditions. |God has given it, in its very lot,| says he, |a religion of its own, the sufficiency of which it were impiety to doubt. The child's veneration can scarcely climb to any loftier height than the soul of a wise and good parent...How can there be for him diviner truth than his father's knowledge, a more wonderous world than his father's experience, a better providence than his mother's vigilance, a securer fidelity than in their united promise? Encompassed round by these, he rests as in the embrace of the only omniscience he can comprehend.| (Martineau)
But O! my friends, when our childhood has passed by, and we go out to drink the mingled cup of life, and cares come crowding upon us, and hopes are crushed, and doubts wrestle with us, and sorrow burdens our spirits, then we need a deeper faith, and look up for a stronger Father. A kind word will not stifle our grief then. We cannot go to sleep upon our mother's arms, and forget it all. There is no charm to hold our spirits within the walls of this home, the earth. Our thoughts crave more than this. Our souls reach out over the grave, and cry for something after! No bauble will assuage this bitterness. It is spiritual and stern, and we must have a word from heaven-a promise from one who is able to fulfill. We look around us, and find that Father, and his vary nature contains the promise that we need. And as the child in his ignorance has faith, not because he can demonstrate, but because it is his father, so let us, in our ignorance, feel that in this great universe of many mansions, of solemn mysteries, of homes beyond the earth, of relationships that reach through eternity, of plans only a portion of which is seen here; so let us look up as to a Father's fare, take hold of his hand, go in and out and lie down securely in his presence, and cherish faith. If children only teach us to do this, how beautiful and how great is their mission!
III. Children waken in us new and powerful affections. Nobody but a parent can realize what these affections are, can tell what a fountain of emotion the newborn child unseals, what chords of strange love are drawn out from the heart, that before lay there concealed. One may have all powers of intellect, a refined moral culture, a noble and wide-reaching philanthropy, and yet a child born to him shall awaken within him a depth of tenderness, a sentiment of love, a yearning affection, that shall surprise him as to the capacity and the mystery of his nature.
And the relation of a mother to her child; what other is like it? Without it, how undeveloped is the great element of affection, how small a horn of its orb is filled and lighted! What was she until that new love woke up within her, and her heart and soul thrilled with it, and first truly lived in it? Of all the degrees of human love, how amply is this the highest! In all the depths of human love, how surely is this the nethermost! When illustrations fail us, how confidently do we seize upon this! The mother nurturing her child in tenderness, watching over it with untiring love! O! that is affection stronger than any of this earth. It has a power, a beauty, a holiness like no other sentiment. When that child has grown to maturity, and has gone out from her in profligacy and in scorn; when the world has denounced him, and justice sets its price upon his head, and lovers and companions fall off from him in utter loathing-we do not ask, we know, there is one heart that cannot reject him. No sin of his can paralyze the chord that vibrates there for him. No alienation can cancel the affection that was born at his birth, that pillowed him in his infancy, centred in him its life, clasped him with its strength, and shed upon him its blessings, its hopes, and its prayers.
And no one feels the death of a child as a mother feels it. Even the father cannot realize it thus. There is a vacancy in his home, and a heaviness in his heart. There is a chain of association that at set times comes round with its broken link; there are memories of endearment, a keen sense of loss, a weeping over crushed hopes, and a pain of wounded affliction. But the mother feels that one has been taken away who was still closer to her heart. Hers has been the office of constant ministration. Every gradation of feature has developed before her eyes. She has detected every new gleam of intelligence. She heard the first utterance of every new word. She has been the refuge of his fears; the supply of his wants. And every task of affection has woven a new link, and made dear to her its object. And when he dies, a portion of her own life, as it were, dies. How can she give him up, with all these memories, these associations? The timid hands that have so often taken hers in trust and love, how can she fold them on his breast, and surrender them to the cold clasp of death? The feet whose wanderings she has watched so narrowly, how can she see them straitened to go down into the dark valley? The head that she has pressed to her lips and her bosom, that she has watched in burning sickness and in peaceful slumber, a hair of which she could not see harmed, O! how can she consign it to the chamber of the grave? The form that not for one night has been beyond her vision or her knowledge, how can she put it away for the long night of the sepulchre, to see it no more? Man has cares and toils that draw away his thoughts and employ them; she sits in loneliness, and all these memories, all these suggestions, crowd upon her. How can she bear all this? She could not, were it not that her faith is as her affection; and if the one is more deep and tender than in man, the other is more simple and spontaneous, and takes confidently hold of the hand of God.
Thus, then, do children awaken within us deep and mighty affections; and is it not their mission to do so? Do we not see many beautiful offices created and discharged by these affections -- tender and far-reaching relationships into which they run? Do we not see how they win the heart from frivolity and selfishness, and make it aware of duties, and quick with sympathies? I shall not enter into detailed considerations of the results of this affection thus awakened in us by children. A little reflection will render them obvious to you. Let me simply say, that in awakening these affections children discharge an important and beautiful mission.
IV. I might speak of other offices discharged by little children; of the influence upon us of their purity and their innocence; their importance in the social state; of the benefits conferred upon us by the very duties which we exercise toward them. But merely suggesting these, I will speak at this time of but one more mission which they perform for us, and this, my friends, is performed through sadness and through tears. The little child performs it by its death. It has been with us a little while. We have enjoyed its bright and innocent companionship by the dusty highway of life, in the midst of its toils, its cares, and its sin. It has been a gleam of sunshine and a voice of perpetual gladness in our homes. We have learned from it blessed lessons of simplicity, sincerity, purity, faith. It has unsealed within us this gushing, never-ebbing tide of affection. Suddenly, it is taken away. We miss the gleam of sunshine. We miss the voice of gladness. Our homes are dark and silent. We ask, |Shall it not come again?| And the answer breaks upon us through the cold gray silence, |Nevermore!| We say to ourselves again and again, |Can it be possible?| |Do we not dream?| |Will not that life and affection return to us?| |Nevermore!| O! nevermore! The heart is like an empty mansion, and that word goes echoing through its desolate chambers. We are stricken and afflicted. But must this, should this, be always and only so? Are we not looking merely at the earthly aspect of the event? Has it not a spiritual phase for us? Nay, do we not begin to consider how through our temporal affection an eternal good is wrought out for us? Do we begin to realize that in our souls we have derived profit from it already? Do we not begin to learn that life is not a holiday or a workday only, but a discipline, -- that God conducts that discipline in infinite wisdom and benevolence, -- mingles the draught, and, when he sees fit, infuses bitterness? Not that constant sweet would not please us better, but that our discipline, which is of more importance than our indulgence, will be more effectual thereby. This is often talked about; I ask, do not we who are called upon to mourn the loss of children realize it, -- actually realize that that loss is for our spiritual gain? If we do not, we are merely looking upon the earthly phase of our loss. If we do not realize this spiritual good, we may.
Yes, in death the little child has a mission for us. Through that very departure he accomplishes for us, perhaps, what he could not accomplish by his life. These affections which he has awakened, we have considered how strong they are. They are stronger, are they not, than any attachment to mere things of this earth? But that child has gone from us, -- gone into the unseen, the spiritual world. What then? Do our affections sink back into our hearts, -- become absorbed and forgotten? O, no! They reach out after that little one; they follow him into the unseen and spiritual world, -- thus is it made a great and vivid reality to us, -- perhaps for the first time. We have talked of it, we have believed in it; but now that our dead have gone into it, we have, as it were, entered it ourselves. Its atmosphere is around us, chords of affection draw us toward it, the faces of our departed ones look out from it -- and it is a reality. And is it not worth something to make it such a reality?
We are wedded to this world. It is beautiful, it is attractive, it is real. Immortality is a pleasant thought. The spiritual land is an object of faith. But the separation between this and that is cold to think of, and hard to bear. It needs something stronger than this earth to draw us toward that spiritual world; to break some of the thousand tendrils that bind us here. My friends, though many powerful appeals, many solid arguments, cannot break our affections from this earth, the hand of a departed child can do it. The voice that calls us to unseen realities, that bids us prepare for the heavenly land, that says from heights of spiritual bliss and purity, |Come up hither;| -- that voice that we loved so on earth, and gladly can we rise and follow it.
Behold, then, what a little child can perform for us through its death! It makes real and attractive to us that spiritual world to which it has gone, and calls our affections from earth to that true life which is the great end of our being, which is the object of all our discipline, our mingled joy and suffering, here upon this earth. That little child, gone from its sufferings of early, -- gone
|Gentle and undefiled, with blessings on its head,| --
has it indeed become a very angel of God for us, and is it calling us to a more spiritual life, and does it win us to heaven? Is its memory around us like a pure presence into which no thought of sin can readily enter? Or is it with us, even yet, a spiritual companion of our ways? From being the guarded and the guided, has it risen in infant innocence, yet in the knowledge and majesty of the immortal life, to be the guard and the guide? Does it, indeed, make our hearts softer and purer, and cause us to think more of duty, and live more holy, thus clothing ourselves to go and dwell with it? Does it, by its death, accomplish all this? O! most important, most glorious mission of all, if we only heed it, if we only accept it. Then shall we behold already the wisdom and benevolence of our Father breaking through the cloud that overshadows us. Already shall we see that the tie, which seemed to be dropped and broken, God has taken up to draw us closer to himself, and that it is interwoven with his all-gracious plan for our spiritual profit and perfection. And we can anticipate how it will all be reconciled, when his own hand shall wipe away our tears, and the bliss of reunion shall extract the last drop of bitterness from |the cup that our Father had given us.|