There are some things that you never forget. For me, it happened after a long day of school. I welcomed the peace and quiet of home, never realizing how ironic that sentiment soon would be. Shortly after arriving, I settled into the couch and snuggled under the increasingly warm blanket for what I thought would be a refreshing nap. Roused from my sleep, I was told by my wife that she was pregnant. It took me a minute to realize that I was not still asleep and dreaming. I was wide awake.
She was pregnant. We were going to be parents. I was going to be a father.
In an instant my life flashed before my eyes. Myriad emotions and feelings overwhelmed mefascination and fear, joy and jeopardy, peace and paralysis. I didn’t know what to think or to do. Questions raced through my head: "Are you sure you’re pregnant?" "How will we be able to afford this?" "Is the house big enough?" "How will I work this out at school?" "What about child care?" "Why God, why?"
In the intervening months since I first found out that I was going to be a parent to my now "veteran" status of having a daughter a year-and-a-half old, I have been able to answer all but the final one: "Why God, why?" This is the one that I am still pondering. I can’t help thinking that God is trying to tell me somethingnot about me, but about God. For the past several months, in the midst of responding to this question, I have been struck by the traditional attributes of God: all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. Though I am only at the very beginning of my musings, I think that God is trying to tell me through our mutually shared state of parenthood that "one out of three ain’t bad."
Creation. If it is not the single most memorable biblical story, it is surely among the best. Depending on which version we favor, God either creates "out of nothing" or breathes life into what was once formless clay. Either way the picture that emerges is one of strength, control and confidence.
But that is only if we stop at the sixth day. For if we look beyond the text and open our imaginations to the seventh day, we hear something else besides, "It is good." We hear the refrain that all parents, usually with the baby crying in the background, utter under their breath yet are too afraid to let other people hear: "I need some rest." Like all smart parents, God soon realizes that when an opportunity presents itself, there is no such thing as a bad nap. On the seventh day God is no longer the Thomistic "unmoved mover," but has become the exhausted and overwhelmed parent. The mask of "I can do anything, anytime, anywhere" is taken off and replaced with running shoes for the endurance marathon of parenthood.
Following closely on the heels of the creation story is another story that offers further insight into God as parentthe story of Noah. One of the first things any new parent realizes is that it’s not about them anymore. For some this is more difficult than for others. Cruises to the Bahamas, late night outings with the guys or gatherings with the girls, getting things done by such and such a date become fleeting and fond memories. In the story of Noah, God is presented as frustrated and angry at humanity. Things have not gone according to plan. First there were Adam and Eve. They didn’t listen. Then came Cain and Abel. They never got along. Now everyone seems to have taken a turn for the worse. What to do? God decides on a punishmentthe flood.
What’s important about this story for parents and our understanding of God is not the flood (the exacting of justice) but the rainbow (the promise of re-creation). Though I have yet to find the conversation in the footnotes of my bible, I often imagine God apologizing to Noah after the flood. "It didn’t work," God says. "What didn’t work?" Noah asks. "Punishment," God replies. "Oh, I could have told you that," responds Noah. "Well, from now on, to remind myself that punishment is not the way to go," God says, "after each rain a bow will appear in the sky. It will be there to remind me that the only way is love."
For me the story of Noah is the story of God’s movement from conditional to unconditional love. In it God recognizes and admits that the creation made in God’s own image can do that which is un-Godlikesin. Instead of destruction and despair, however, God decides that if an error will be made in judgment it will be on the side of compassion and mercy rather than of punishment and justice. In this covenantal moment God expresses an unbounded love for humanity and, as difficult as it may be, lets that relationship evolve in freedom rather than fear. God demonstrates so clearly in the story of Noah the parental principle that punishment may stop a behavior for a while, but love holds the possibility of transforming it forever.
Through the stories of creation and Noah, we meet a God who becomes vulnerable and, in a way, limits God’s very self, becoming so open as to be "defenseless" to this ongoing process of change and evolution on the part of humanity. If God takes that risk, so too must we as parents.
The months of pregnancy were O.K. I could, when asked, say that everything was going fine. We were fixing up the nursery, buying clothes, rearranging the house, reading the obligatory parenting books. On the surface we were ready, everything was planned out.
That all changed when our daughter was born. I very quickly became a weak and humble man. Why? Because I knew so little. "How do I change a diaper?" "What’s the water/formula ratio for the bottles?" "Where does the car seat go?" I didn’t want to admit it, but I had to say it: "Help!" Thank goodness a community of family and friends was there, willing to lend a helping hand.
Looking at the creation story again, I imagine God going through the same thing. What was once simple, now is complicated. Dark becomes light, night becomes day. Water becomes land, mountains flow into oceans. Birds soar through the air, buffalo graze the prairies. Then there is this particular creation, humanity, which appears to have a mind of its own. The initial joy of creation soon turns to the all too real feeling, "What did I get myself into?" God knows there is this attribute of omnipotence, "all-powerfulness," to live up to, but finally breaks down and shouts throughout the enormous expanse of creation, "Help!"
Seen in this light, the Trinity, one of the great mysteries of our Christian faith, isn’t so mysterious after all. If parenting is to be successful, one soon realizes that it takes a team effort. It takes a community, a familyboth nuclear and extended. We recognize that we cannot do it all by ourselves. Likewise, if God’s creation is to be successful, it is going to take a community of divine persons, with the Father begetting the Son and breathing forth the Spirit, whose sole purpose is to be love and invite all of creation to join and participate in that reality. This call for help is not an admission of weakness, however, but a sign of strengthno small order, though, for God or for us as parents to do.
What throws a wrench into all of this is the gift of freedom and its associate partner, suffering. A story that exemplifies this appeared in The Gift of Peace, by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago. As I read it, the most moving scene took place not toward the end of Cardinal Bernardin’s life but near the beginning. As Cardinal Bernardin recalled: "It was summertime, and our family was visiting friends. My father had recently undergone cancer-related surgery on his left shoulder, and he was wearing a bandage under a white short-sleeved shirt. I was sitting on a metal railing on the porch of our friends’ home, when suddenly I fell backwards, hit the ground, and started crying. My father immediately jumped over the rail and picked me up. As he held me in his arms, I could see blood soaking through his shirt. He paid no attention; all he wanted to do was to be sure I was alright."
How often had Cardinal Bernardin’s father told him to be careful, to watch himself? Yet, as always happens, the roots to grow soon become the wings to fly. Sometimes that taking flight involves failing and falling. When this happens, the parent does what comes naturally. The child is cradled in the supportive and comforting embrace of mom and dad and told to be careful so it doesn’t happen again. But as life moves on, it does happen again, in different ways and at different places, but the parent is still there to pick up the cut and bruised child. For parents, as for God, this exercise of freedom is a beautiful yet painful process. For freedom involves a possibility, the possibility of going this way or that, of doing this or that. It admits of uncertainty, new possibilities, good or bad. Freedom allows for creativity, and originality, to invade our supposedly controlled environment. It is one of the things that make life worth living. As joyful and heart-stopping as it is, if God allows this element of surprise to exist and blossom within creation, so too must we as parents.
In a short story, "The Expert on God," John L’Heureux presents the portrait of a newly ordained priest. Instead of being confirmed in his faith, though, the new priest is filled with doubts. They run the gamut from belief in the Trinity to Jesus’ full presence in the Eucharist. When those are resolved he moves on to doubt the perpetual virginity of Mary and Jesus being fully human and fully divine. Eventually he suppresses these doubts, and all that remains is "an awful lingering and unspeakable ache."
The one doubt that did not pass, the one that was the cause of much anxiety, was the love of God. The priest could not shake that, hard though he tried.
As fate would have it, returning from celebrating Mass on Christmas day, while trying not to be distracted by the blinding sun from the icy road, his attention is startled as he comes upon an accident. Off to the side, one car is partially turned over on its side. In an adjoining field a red sports car looks to be crumpled in two. Grabbing his vial of holy oil, the priest rushes to the twisted sports car to lend whatever assistance he can. Forcing himself into the car, the priest is able to cradle the boy and quickly offer the last rites. Frustrated at the apparent ineffectiveness of this, L’Heureux writes, "[h]is doubts became certainty and he said, It doesn’t matter,’ but it did matter and he knew it. What could anyone say to this crushed, dying thing, he wondered. What would God say if he cared as much as I?
"He shook with an involuntary sob then, and as he did, the boy shuddered in agony and choked on the blood that had begun to pour from his mouth. The priest could see death beginning to ease across the boy’s face. And still he could say nothing.
"The boy turnedsome dying reflexand his head tilted in the priest’s arms, trusting, like a lover. And at once the priest, faithless, unrepentant, gave up his prayers and bent to him and whispered, fierce and burning, I love you,’ and continued till there was no breath, I love you. I love you. I love you.’"
When power and knowledge failed, the only recourse was love.
I was reminded of this story recently when our daughter was in the hospital. Her stay was preceded by several days of anxious worry on the part of her parents as to why her usual cheerful disposition was now punctuated by moments of pain, accompanied by the shakes. Visits to the doctors proved inconclusive. We felt so powerless. There was little we could do to change the situation. Not knowing her condition only exacerbated our fears. Finally she was admitted.
I remember well the first few hours we spent there. In order to find out whether her condition was bacterial or viral, they had to draw blood. Tapping a vein in a nine month old child is no easy feat. The first attempt was unsuccessful. The second attempt had the same result. The third, fourth, fifth attemptsno luck. Finally, on the six attempt, they were able to get a vein and begin an IV. Throughout the whole process, I truly experienced a sense of powerlessness. As our daughter cried, I wanted to do what any parent wouldfix the problem. My knowledge was limited, however. Standing next to me, though, you would have heard the resounding echoes of, "I love you. I love you. I love you." It was my one trump card.
At that moment I couldn’t help but feel a special closeness with God, who through the gift of freedom, no longer says to us, "I am all-powerful, I know everything," but still echoes throughout all of creation, "I love you. I love you. I love you."
In that echo, I rest assured, knowing that in the end, that if God is all-loving, love is all-powerful and love is all-knowing.
Still I feel the need to end with a caveat. It comes from a story by Anthony de Mello. In the story, a Marxist asks a wise old master, "Is there a God?" "Certainly not the kind people are thinking of," says the master. Perplexed, the Marxist responds, "Whom are you referring to when you speak of people?" "Everyone," replies the Master.
With that said, I still hope that one out of three ain’t bad.