I’m sitting here watching you eat dinner as the light fades and we wait for Daddy to come home. You’re fussier than usual because the terrible twos are closing in, and because it hasn’t been that long since I left you for a week for a planned (but unknown to you) trip to Ireland, and you’re still recovering from that shock. You’ve gotten picky all of a sudden…you used to eat everything I put in front of you plus the lint in your pockets, and now I watch you peeling peanut butter off crackers and gingerly picking peas out of casseroles. You’re not a baby anymore—you haven’t been one for awhile.
It surprises me how much you talk now. You can finish any song I start, and you repeat the last line of every verse. I think that’s called “phonemic awareness”—ability to mimic the sounds of language. I don’t know. Hopefully you’re ready for kindergarten when it’s time…or the year later. We’ll see how it goes. No pressure.
You’ve found the top of your yogurt pouch—it’s red plastic, shaped like a tiny egg cup. You lift it to your lips and pretend to drain it dry. “Aaaahhhh” you say, a parody of a satisfied draft. I taught you that. I don’t know why kids think that’s so funny…I’ve gotten laughs from toddlers to eight-graders with the pretend sigh after the drink. You really do mimic everything I do.
It’s freaking me out, actually, the amount of mimicking you’re doing. Some of it sounds like me, some like your dad…but I’m just waiting for the day I see something awful in you that I recognize. Some selfish attitude, some ungrateful tone, a love of something stupid. Just like you have my eyes, which I consider my best feature, I think you may turn out to have my bad qualities. I’m just waiting for them to surface. Not to be a downer, but you got half of me and half of Thomas…and we’re neither of us 100% good.
It’s hard to explain things to you, and I guess I haven’t really tried. The really important things, like love and forgiveness and repentance. I know you’re too young to get those things on any level, but I want you to at least FEEL them—for them to be present in your atmosphere, for there to be immersion, like language. And then one day maybe you’ll mimic something good and Christ-like.
You say “Jesus”—your grandmother plays you music videos and songs about Jesus, and cute VBS rhymes and Veggie Tales. Your uncle nearly cried the first time he heard you say it. He was having a bad day and he said, “that makes it all better just hearing that little one say Jesus.” And I agreed, though I don’t think it means anything to you.
You have a big cut on your lip from the other day…the result of taking a tumble in between the seats at our church. You tripped over a purse and your little mouth was covered in blood. I rushed you to the bathroom and put cold paper towels on the spot while you cried. There was blood all over my shoulder where you’d rested your head, but I didn’t notice it until we were done and ready to go back into the service. Daddy brought you up to the front of the church where the priest was giving the Eucharist, and Daddy asked if he’d bless you. I can never remember what the man in the robe says when he puts his hand on your little forehead, and I know you don’t understand it, but you listen and watch, all attention, waiting for something to happen. The body and blood of Christ happened, like it does every week.
You try to behave in church, I know you do. But it’s a long time to sit and listen for a little boy. I could put you in the nursery, but you’re in a nursery all day, five days a week. And besides, one of the reasons we chose this church is so we could keep you in the service with us. There are plenty of other kids near us—they scramble around the chairs and roll on the floor, coloring and sipping juice cups. It doesn’t bother anyone. Still, I know it gets old. A few weeks ago, I remember cracking up because the priest was giving the most beautiful homily on Lent, and you were in Daddy’s lap in your black pants and white collared shirt, and you rolled your eyes to the ceiling and let out a long wail and the words “oooooohhhh whyyyyyy?” About a thousand times.
It seemed like a pretty profound reaction at the time. It’s all being explained in the most lucid, sound way and you’re complaining almost wordlessly, facing the complete wrong direction. A good metaphor for how we all behave sometimes when the gospel is preached.
Why do we go every week? You could be at home napping. And Mommy doesn’t go as often as Daddy does. Sometimes Mommy is sick, or she stays home to clean. Sometimes she keeps you home because YOU’RE sick. But Daddy always goes, and it’s important to him that you go. That you sit beside him and go with him to the front of the church, with all the other people streaming down the aisle to get the bread and the wine while the piano and the string instruments fill the small space. If nothing else, maybe it’s so you can hear beautiful music.
But it isn’t always beautiful music. I loved my church growing up, but not all of my experiences with the body of Christ have been violin music and pancake breakfasts. Christian schools and companies, groups of Christians here and there, even Christians I don’t even know…they’ve all broken my heart one way or another. I don’t know if you and I will ever talk about that stuff, but I don’t intend to sugar coat it. Because, Andrew, the church is not a place you go to get away from the world and pretend you’re perfect. It’s a place you go to be reminded of your need for grace, and to receive and give love, in a fractional sort of way. Think Alcoholics Anonymous…I’ll explain when you’re older.
This is a weird story but I know you love gross stuff, so here it goes.
A few years ago, before you were born, I was going through the pantry in our old apartment, looking for a snack. Instead, I ran across a cockroach. Or rather, it ran across me…across my hand. I jumped back in terror (I’m not brave, son. And I was much flimsier before I’d pushed you out of me). “Thom! There’s cockroaches…get in here and fix it!” Daddy came rushing into the room, stood up and pulled the boxes out of the shelves too high for me to reach. “Woah,” I heard him say as he drew back in alarm.
“There’s like…ten cockroaches here, all dead in the flour—,”
I think I screamed and ran.
The roaches had gotten in through a crack in the wall that happened to be in the pantry, and they’d moved into a bag of gluten-free flour and gorged themselves to death, or else sniffed it all up in a cloud of white like Scarface. Daddy threw them out, and I walked around the rest of the day, the rest of the week, feeling like garbage because roaches had taken over my kitchen. What kind of wife was I? We were living in squalor…roaches are the opposite of classiness.
I tell you this story because this is the reason we go to church—because we’re the opposite of good. Because there are roaches in our pantries and skeletons in our closets. Because even after braving childbirth, Mommy is a coward. And I know I’m the grown-up adult in your life, son, but I just don’t see myself as a grown up most of the time. And when I’m at church, listening to those priests read two thousand year old words, I can feel myself immersed in wisdom and I know it makes me older.
Not that priests are perfect…your Pop Pop was a preacher, and the best one I’ve ever met, but Pop Pop isn’t perfect. And Daddy prays The Lord’s Prayer for you every night, but it isn’t because Daddy is perfect (though he’s wonderful). It’s because we’ll never find those words on our own… “Hallowed be your name…” We would take sentences and paragraphs to explain all that ourselves, but it’s already been done. “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses…” That’s enough for one day in less than a sentence…enough for more than a day. Enough to ponder for a long time, and even longer to master. If that’s even possible. The one who mastered it would be someone so humble and meek…and great.
And Andrew, I want you to be great. Great in the eyes of God. It’s not the same as being great in the eyes of man…it’s not like being President or getting famous. It’s about being humble and gentle and just. I can’t tell all that to you, and my heart wells up with explanations you’re too little to understand.
Once, a few months before you were born, I was sitting in church and they were talking about martyrs. And I had to leave the service and cry in the foyer all over my maternity shirt, because I knew that people who are great in the eyes of God…they sometimes get killed. And in my pregnant state, full of fears and love, I knew that there was always the risk you’d end up like Peter or Paul and not like John. And there was no guarantee I could cling to—there was no promise that you WOULDN’T. Just the promise of eternal life for those who believe that Jesus was God’s son and that he rose from the dead. And all of a sudden that mattered even more than it had to me before, because I was staking another person’s life on it. I would either teach you those things, or I wouldn’t.
A lot of people are going to tell you that all this doesn’t matter—they like to make fun of Christians they’ve seen on tv, or parodies of Christians, or people they’ve met who made them feel slightly uneasy or guilty. The last thing the world wants is to feel bad about something that they’ve done. But that’s sort of part of it—in fact, it’s a huge part of being a Christian. Knowing that you’ve been wrong, feeling bad about it, and turning around and going a different way…that’s the simplest way I can describe repentance to you. And when you ask me what it means, that’s how I’ll explain it. Because that’s step one…we’re not even there yet.
The task ahead of me is daunting. Truth be told, I never thought much about leading you to Christ. I thought about reading you Bible stories and dropping you off at a church nursery with nice Sunday School teachers…I sort of expected God to do the rest. Sure, I dreaded the difficult questions about why this happened or that, but I know we have a while. Long enough for me to…not prepare, but at least pray.
Now you’re in bed, after a “hug? Love you?” Which was followed by a five minute tantrum, teeth brushing, a glass of water, and your prayers. We put your hands together and say “thank you, thank you, thank you…” and you call out “God!” Then, “for our family, friends and…” you giggle a little and finish the line— “Food!” It’s the best we can do at the moment.
I just want you to love church, and to love God, and to love Jesus, and to love us. And I want you to be able to see past all of us to the One who loves you most. I want Him to teach you in your dreams and in your waking hours, in the long thoughts that cross your little face during nap time and during interminable car rides, staring out the back windshield. I want Him to explain it to you in ways that are perfect. And for that, you need to be immersed in the language of the Body of Christ—words like “blood of Christ shed for you”, and “Holy, holy, holy”, and “Spare us, Good Lord.” And when He calls your name in the middle of the night, I want you to answer. Because I will have to sleep sometime, but He won’t. You two have a whole life to get to know each other, but I want to do my part while I have you in my house and you’re listening to me. And I don’t have words like the Church does.