I was sitting in a restaurant with our boys a few months ago. Seth asked me whether there were free refills. I said yes. Christian, said, "Why don’t you ever just fool around with them. Tell them no, when it’s really yes?" I responded, “Because there are refills.” “Yes, but you have the power to really fool them. They believe you. You could so easily just lie and fool him.” I replied, “I could, but then Seth would grow up to believe that authority cannot be trusted, that it doesn’t have his best interests at heart.” I explained to Christian that how Seth hears me respond to him is how he will interpret the voice and desires and heart of his heavenly Father. And I want him to know that God will give him answers, straight answers, when he needs them. That he can go to him when he needs to. That he will be listened to. “I suppose,” I said to Christian, “how Seth thinks of me is how he will, most easily think, of God.”
Mimicking or echoing the divine is not easy, particularly when it comes to parenting. Sometimes, what I need God to be and what he is are different things entirely. So, I choose the story of God that best suits my purposes--a little selective editing. For example, it is initially easier to parent if the God we teach and subsequently model is a god of swift and divine retribution; a sort of Old Testament deity but without the patience that allows children to wander for forty years. If that is the God I model, then I can teach my child that the moment he hits his brother, or steals the dollar bill from the change pile in the car (probably would have to be a 20 spot before I'd notice), or orders iTunes without asking, he's sinned and there is a punishment attached. In good conscience, I can send him to time out, or spank him (but not in America), take away his phone, or, at the very least, cold-shoulder him until he grovels himself back in my good graces and riding shotgun. Swift, neat, dispassionate, with little discussion and time, lots of lonely time, for the errant child to sit in his wet diaper (figuratively or literally) and think about it.
Far more difficult to actually parent the way God seems to parent me. With an intimate patience, and a longsuffering goodnaturedness that seems to forget easily and bless often. With a soft touch that doesn't seem to do much more than remind me I am far better than this particular action, that I am loved, and that tomorrow we will try again. If tomorrow doesn't go well, there is always the day after. And yes, Tessa, I do see your heart. So, you can keep your cell phone, your iTunes, and your turn riding shotgun. P.S. Consider giving the dollar back and paying for the songs. You'll feel better about yourself and will be able to look your mother in the eye. P.P.S. Please remember when you feel distant from me, that you put yourself in time out, not the otherway around. I would love your company.
If I am to use this more divinely accurate but more perplexing and less apparently outcome-determinative parental style, then my interactions with my children become more like conversations and less like interrogations. Upon discovering a child's error, I cannot resort to the stiff-armed, one-handed wrist pull that throws a child into his bedroom and slams the door behind him. Neither can I use the slow, quiet, death voice that speaks at a funereal pace, one staccato word at a time (unless, of course, as happened last weekend, the child's friend has just crashed through the skylight in the guest bathroom and fallen ten feet to the floor below while I am at Julia's varsity basketball senior night; then I am fully justified in using the death voice). Say goodbye to shouting louder, higher and longer than the child in an attempt to win the argument, or resorting to banishment in a lonely room without dinner or cell phone.
I've never once felt those tactics at work in my relationship with the divine. Truth be told, if I am to model for my children, a divine parent, then the only power play left in my posession is a simple invitation. I can invite my child to a particular action, relying on my relationship with her, the connection I have developed over years of days and nights, and afternoons in the car, on the couch, at the pool and on the soccer field. I hope she knows I would never intentionally lead her astray, that she remembers I have advised her well in the past. Then, after extending the invitation, the faithless part in me, holds my breath and watches as she chooses. Mostly right, sometimes wrong, always her choice.
It's a hard way to parent like this. I have to take very long breaths. The earth-bound parent in me wants to ensure my children always choose what I think is best. I would like to force them to heaven; and if not to heaven, at least to a good four-year college, preferably on a scholarship. (Personally, I have never responded to force, or even the suggestion of coercion, so I should be able to recognize that my children, raised by me, would not either.) Mistakes are inevitable. Children will not choose as I would for them. They will not always choose to use a knife and fork. They will choose to run across a skylight on their neighbor's roof--and sometimes will fall in (if the retribution angel is on duty). They may also choose to reject, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, their parent's God. They will be crass, cruel, selfish, dishonest and lazy. They will also be kind, sensitive, beautiful, clean and faithful. Sometimes even on the same day. The least we can do is be there, even if longsuffering and patience seem a bit beyond our grasp.
A cherished moment from the last month: Julia and I in my bedroom, Julia on the edge of the bed, me on the floor between her legs, talking as she plays with my hair, making braids and contraptions a la Cindy Lou Who. Talking about my high school and hers, about my boys and hers, about my kisses and hers, about changing selves and making new circles, about loneliness and longing. She can't look me in the eye, but she can play with my hair, and swat me upside the head when I go too far. She came to find me that afternoon brush in hand, as I sat on the floor in my bedroom, and she plonked herself down behind me. The invitation was given a day before. I made sure I was in the vicinity (matched enough socks for Bush's army). It took her awhile, but she came to find me. Just like I've always gone to find Him.
(Title: from Barenaked Ladies, Call and Answer (minus the last verse, which undercuts my point entirely))