My daughter is in seventh grade, next year she will be in eighth. She tells me this means she will be “the king of middle school.” She will go to a leadership camp and learn what it means to cultivate leadership qualities in order to be a good king for the underlings in sixth and seventh grade.
And then she will graduate middle school and it’s back to the bottom of the pecking order — one minute a king, the next, a lowly high school freshman. Just when you think you’ve learned everything there is to know comes the swift reminder you are only just beginning.
Out here in the real world, things operate similarly. Motherhood certainly took me through the same cruel pattern. After floundering sleeplessly, aimlessly, in a constant panicked state through the first few newborn months, I thought I’d mastered this parenting thing. I could interpret my newborn’s cries, predict when she would go down for her nap within a half hour margin of error, and change a diaper by rote.
In C.S. Lewis’ beloved Narnia chronicles, the youngest of the four main characters, a little girl named Lucy, encounters Aslan, the lion who is an archetype for God.
She hasn’t seen him for a time, and she remarks, “Aslan, you are bigger.”
Aslan replies, with his strong, gentle voice, “Every year you grow, so shall I.”
As parents we are saddled with some anxiety to make sure we teach our children everything that they need to know within the short eighteen years we have them in our home. But when it comes to our faith, we can breathe easy, because our God is not One who can be limited to eighteen years of instruction. We get to walk with our children in this very beginning of their journey, and watch them dip their toes into just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God.
The question we need to ask when our children leave home is not, "Have you learned everything there is to know about God?"
But, "Are you ready to get started?"
Here’s the thing: I live in a country that is predominantly Buddhist. Here, little kids are taught to hold incense and kneel and bow at ancestor tablets and a variety of gods. Do you know how cute it is to see a little kid praying with pure devotion to a Buddhist god? It is JUST AS CUTE as the blonde headed little girl singing Jesus Loves Me.
A child’s faith is not a testimony of the power of God to evangelize them. It demonstrates how malleable and impressionable children are to the faith values exposed to them at a young age. Children must trust wholeheartedly in order to survive. Their dependence on adults undergirds their entire worldview. Like it or not, as parents we are entrusted with this enormous responsibility to build the structures of faith in which our children will inevitably live fully into, especially when they are little.
Because of this drastic inequality of power between adults and our dependent children, we must take tender care to wield our tremendous spiritual influence on them in a way that is respectful of their autonomy, that listens to their concerns, that empowers them to grow into wholeness, and to ultimately make their own faith choices. We must always be aware of the power differential even as we act as the portal through which they come to know God.
After five days in the hospital, filled with overwhelming joy, paralyzing fear, and complete exhaustion in the wake of the birth of our twins, I finally found a moment to walk outside the florescent lights and sit under the bright moon. Sitting on a small patch of grass outside the hospital doors, the reality of being a father to four kids finally hit me. I was both overwhelmed and overjoyed by the gift and responsibility of raising four kids in a world so desperately in need of mustard seeds of hope that one day blossom into healing and beauty.
So as I sit in relative comfort and begin to dream big dreams for my kids, I am struck by the reality that most fathers around the globe are forced to welcome their kids into a world where there is no "ladder" to climb because it has been knocked out from under them by broken systems that are breaking people. A world where many kids are born into families fleeing violent persecution and being nursed on the trauma of war in battered refugee camps — places where the thought of hope is a distant second to simply fighting to survive. A world where one’s value is more closely associated with gender (male) than with the beautiful uniqueness inherent in every new life.
But this is also a world pregnant with possibilities. A world where former enemies move beyond their past, share tables, and begin to imagine a future together. A world where the blossoms of new life begin to sprout in the shadowy corners of forgotten neighborhoods. A world where the diversity of God’s kingdom begins to awaken our eyes and hearts to the new world God is making.
It is in this world — a world both beautiful and broken — that I offer this prayer over my four kids.
When I was a child, I lived in a black-and-white world of all-this or all-that.
Humankind meant my family. The world meant my neighborhood. Religion meant my church. Politics meant my father’s beliefs.
Oh, I was aware that more was out there, but it had little claim on my imagination or loyalties. My world was complete. There were no gray areas, no compromises, no maybes.
That was a child’s view, reality writ small. In time, I advanced beyond it, until the world became large, complicated, and gray, with places beyond imagining, people totally unlike anyone I knew, ideas beyond anything I heard at my parents’ table.
It’s called growing up. Discovering through knowledge and experience that the little I grew up knowing wasn’t enough to know.
We are witnessing today a headlong retreat into the not-knowing and simplistic partisanship of childhood. Ideas that make people uncomfortable are banished. Science that calls faith into question is shouted down. Politics isn’t just hardball, it’s dumb-ball: I must win, at any cost, and you must lose. I am right, and you are wrong. My tribe is the only tribe that has value and rights.
One time I took a group of people in the drug rehab program to the local zoo. Most of our group had been to prison – some for years. Most were felons. Most of the women had been prostitutes as well as addicts. Most of them had been homeless, had lengthy criminal records and had, as a group, used virtually every drug — heroin, meth, crack cocaine — and had used every deception, scam, or theft to acquire their drugs. In short, they had been desperate in ways and to a degree most of us could never imagine. If you think a hungry man will commit extreme acts for food to keep from starving, an addict will commit acts a hundred times more extreme. There are few acts an addict will not do.
And yet, few of these former addicts had ever been to a zoo.
One of these people, a woman in her mid-40s, couldn’t contain her excitement as we walked into sight of the resident animals. She shrieked and ran from exhibit to exhibit — until she saw the elephants. We happened to catch the trainer as he was giving a little question-and-answer time. This woman had endless, little kid-type questions about how elephants ate, slept, how they lived, and where they came from.
I have been thinking about the church of my youth. I have been remembering, if you will, as a guy who has read too much Updike (I'll never forgive him for the Rabbit books) might remember his youth.
There is a melding of nostalgia for what was as well as what might have been. It's a mess, to be honest, a kind of lie that draws me in no matter how often I tell myself it is a lie. Sometimes these lies of memory are the heart's truth.