Sunday, June 26, 2005

Suspect Device

--Decided to re-post this after a friend announced the birth of his second daughter. From the wayback machine:

A Pastor's Notebook October 28, 1999
Suspect Device
Norm T., the domesticated engineer and mad tuba player, recently sent me an e-mail from the howling tundras of the St. Paul suburbs in response to my APN entry on meeting baby Celeste. He writes:
I don't disagree with a single thing you said, however as a father it goes beyond that, in that those same feelings of "total trust", "undying love", "Absolute awe" continue through their lives. Kelly, although 5 and very independent, still has moments where she wants nothing more than to be that little baby again, curled up in your arms being totally dependent on you. As long as you (as the adult) accept that this time decreases with age, but is still absolutely necessary (if not from her point of view, from mine) you too can have those same feelings throughout your child's life. (At least I hope it lasts that long.)

I still am in wonder every day at how she grows and changes and how she sees the world and people around her. I guess this has less to do with being a parent and more to do with just being there and seeing it happen each and every day.

To which I can only reply: I wonder if this is the way God sees us? We began our lives with God as wholly dependent, if you take the story of Genesis at face value. Over the years, we've become more and more independent, perhaps necessarily, perhaps not. Nowadays we hardly write home at all to let the old man know how we're doing. Things aren't going well, of course, despite the Clinton economic boom. There have been too many Kosovos, too many Rwandas, for us to believe seriously that the human race is ready to manage its own affairs without some timely parental intervention.

You’d think that we would turn to God more often than we do, given our state of affairs. It seems like an obvious statement, even a platitude. But how often does it really come true? Our ability to keep focussed on the God of love, mercy and peace gets more spotty every day. We distance ourselves with television, numb ourselves with the polite fiction of the stock market, and reassure ourselves with the outright lie that those countries have always been like that. Which is not to say that the good is entirely erased from us; there are still saints and angels who walk amongst us. Even the ordinary people of faith can accomplish something good once in a while. We did finally do something about both Kosovo and Rwanda, after all, though probably too little too late. But our hearts and minds remain our own, and as always, we remain erratic children, prone to saintliness one day, bestiality the next.

Fortunately, I have yet to meet a child given to devil worship, so I'll skip the discussion of "walking in the ways of the Lord" as compared to "walking in the ways of the devil." I will say this, however. Part of the pain, yet part of the joy, of being a parent is that you never know what the little monster is going to do next. Give you a hug or break your kneecap? Draw you a picture or smash your favorite vase? Sit in his room listening to punk rock, or become a pastor? And so on.

Again, I am only guessing at what that looks like from the perspective of a parent. But having been a "difficult" child myself—hell, let's not beat around the bush: I was nuts—I can extrapolate. One night when my oldest niece was turning two, she was so enthused about blowing out her birthday candles that she almost stuck her face into their flames. There were eight adults around the dinner table. Each one of us, seized by the same instinct, lunged forward, yelling and ready to pull her back by her overalls. She looked up, bewildered by all the commotion, and we had a good laugh. It occurred to me much later that that moment, played out more often than a Yankees world series must be what parenthood is like. That shouldn't take away from the awe and the joy and the pride of being a parent, but it does set it in a background of terror, something like seeing a diamond, then becoming aware of the sweat and sacrifice it took to bring it out of the earth. Labor was painful, some mother said, and after that, things only got worse.

My point in all this is two-fold and (mercifully) brief. The first is something along the lines of a lesser-to-greater argument. If it's ennervating for a human parent to watch their children grow, what must it be like for God to watch the entire human race come into their own? It's tempting to want to abstract the issue, to say that by and large, we get along okay, and God doesn't have much to worry about. But Jesus said that not a sparrow flew nor a hair fell that God didn't know about, which suggests to me at least that God is much more intimate with our ups and downs that we'd give a deity credit for being. It's hard to get a hold of, that idea. It's been gone over so many times before that it begins to look like that squirrel that got flattened on your street last Sunday. Think of it this way; God is like an extra family member to each of us. God's the brother we never had, or the sister; God’s like a third parent, a fifth grandparent, even a second cousin.

I won’t hyperbolize by saying that God loves us more than any of these could. Leave it at that God loves us as much as any of them. If we are struck by cancer, God knows. If we—or our wife—becomes pregnant, God knows. If we're feeling on top of the world, God knows that, too. The point is not so much that God knows each of us individually, however. It’s more that God knows all of us individually. The miracle of the divine is that God is able to laugh, shout, cry, weep and moan with the best of us—and with the rest.

More to the original point, the parental feelings of love, trust, and awe never leave God. For the divine being, we are an ever-unfolding act of wonder and beauty, children in the same way that we see our children grow and change. There are hard times with any kid, there's no denying that. But as Norm seems to be pointing out in his e-mail, the hard times are more than compensated for by the good times, and if you're lucky, the good times keep coming. Can you imagine that God is as proud of as your father? That God is as attached to you as much as your own mother? That God is as surprised, baffled and entertained by the continuing process of your life as you were when your children were babies? Seems outrageous, doesn’t it?

Which brings us to point two.

I love my God, but sometimes I wonder if "he" is not an anarchistic bomb-thrower. God has given us the gift of freedom, which sounds good in principal, but leads to a lot of chaos in practice. But for that matter, so does the birth of a child. We are each of us a suspect device, unpredictable and potentially quite dangerous little packages found tucked away under the benches in airports and railway terminals. The potential for mischief is enormous—Rwanda, Kosovo, Chechnya, the streets of New York City—but then, who said all mischief had to be bad? We could be high-explosives of love if we wanted to be, not violence or indifference. As the Northern Irish band Stiff Little Fingers once sang, "A suspect device/can score an own goal," a metaphor taken from soccer games, where a player accidentally punts a ball into his own goal. The Fingers were referring to the ability of Irish kids to subvert the structures that led to ever-increasing violence in their homeland, but the point is general. Each child is a suspect device, a love-bomb in the making, as it were. Why shouldn't we "blow up in their face," and refuse to take part in the dumb hurt and sadness that makes up our daily lives? I imagine that God looked at Jesus on the cross and said, "Well, I didn’t know he was going to do that, but he’s sure made me proud."

That may seem contradictory when stacked against my claim that God is intimate in our lives, but it's only an apparent contradiction. We all know—or at least hope—that our children will stand up and walk one day, but foresight doesn't privilege us with the exact time and date. Nor does God's awe and wonder at the progress of our lives mean necessarily that God knows exactly what's in store for each of us at a certain moment. Rather, God is Immanuel—God with us—as parent, friend, and comforter. God is being there, and God sees it all happen each and every day—and nothing could tickle the Eternal One more pink.