(Maze at Scone Palace, Perth, Perthshire, Scotland, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Daily office readings for August 6:
Psalm 87, 90
2 Samuel 12:15-31
Evening Psalm: 136
Children figure prominently in this sequence of readings. In 2 Samuel, we are shown the sequence of events surrounding the death of the child conceived as a result of David and Bathsheba's affair. Our Acts reading focuses on young Eutychus, who is literally "sleeping like the dead," and in Mark's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that welcoming the child on his lap is to welcome both himself and God. We see children illustrated as symbols of grief and loss, mistaken perceptions, and divine hospitality.
Unlike today, where entire shopping malls are devoted to children's clothing, toys, and games, and a dropped pacifier in the grocery store is liable to result in a parent extracting a hermetically sealed, sanitized replacement in a zip-closure bag in a matter of seconds, children in Biblical times were expendable commodities. Children did work as soon as they were able. They were an insurance policy for one's well-being in old age--the more you had, the more likely you'd be cared for. If a family could not care for them, they were more or less turned into the street to fend for themselves, and generally, it was expected that a certain percentage of them would not live to adulthood.
All three readings show a certain degree of unusual behavior towards children and youth for the times. David displays what must have been, for his servants, a bewildering and unsettling amount of grief. Eutychus (whose name, incidentally, means "good fortune") is discerned to be alive when it's clear those who found him would prefer he be left for dead. Finally, it must have been bewildering for the disciples that Jesus would have grabbed up a dirty street waif, plopped the child on his lap, used the child as the gold standard of hospitality and welcome.
Bewilderment is as much a part of the Christian experience as joy, but we are not always accepting of it.
I've thought a lot about how as our relationship with God deepens and matures, there is a part of that growth that, frankly, doesn't feel like growth. Think about it like this. As small children, our notion of God is two-fold: God is this unseen being who protects us, and, in our child-like way of thinking, gives us what we want. As little children, we don't always know the difference between need and want.
I honestly think there are Christians who never get too far away from that notion. Even those of us who are more spiritually mature like to rationalize that "What I want is what God thinks I need."
Yet, as children, I think we are pretty accepting of God being the "in charge" one in this relationship. After all, everyone in our world at that age is in charge, and we're not. But as we become adults, we become accustomed to more "equal partner" relationships at home and work. Sure, there are people "in charge" of us at the workplace, but if we don't like it, we can find another workplace, or over time, we become the one in charge.
I think back to me as a young adult. My goal was to be in charge of my destiny. Many of my life choices were based on that. Now, in middle age, I am faced with this interesting bewilderment, because what I sense is coming through in the subtle ways God connects with me, is that God's desire for me is to be obedient in ways that have been the minority of my life experiences. At a very early age, I connected "obedience" to obeying out of fear. Fear of being beaten, fear of emotional abandonment, fear of humiliation. There were definitely times I obeyed out of love, but they were not the majority. I don't think it was some evil plot on the part of my family, I think it was just the offshoot of a family that historically lived an economically hard life with roots in the Depression and who knows what before that. When a family learns, generation after generation, that life is hard, there's simply an emotional hoarding that comes with it, and it's hard to reconcile that.
"To be in charge" meant to control the hard things, and to be independent, to not have to rely on another single person for your destiny. But I've come to realize other people did shape my destiny. I've really thought about that during the recent illness of a special mentor. He came from that kind of background, too, and I've discovered an odd bond begin to form between me and his daughter. She should be jealous of me, honestly. But she's not. She decided to assuage her own family hurts by showing me love.
What I've come to learn in my own spiritual maturity is that "being in charge" is not all it's cracked up to be, and in that journey, I've come to see that a relationship with God is, paradoxically, a very complex critter, indeed, but with simple requests. We are not always protected from harm. Bad things happen to us, and to those we love. We are abandoned at times in the world. We are humiliated. Yet the way to peace with God is to accept God doesn't "fix" all this stuff or give us our wants, like Santa Claus. To be raised from the dead emotionally and psychologically means we have to die inside at times and grieve. The paradox is that all God asks from us is to love, and obey--not obey from fear, but in love--to enter that childlike place where it's just assumed we are loved by God.
Frankly, for me, this is a bewildering place. I learned to love to please others. I have relatively few memories on which to draw where I "assumed I was loved." To go to that place with God seems like a "new" place although I'm sure it's not; I just don't have many conscious memories of it. The bewilderment, I think for many of us is that in middle age part of what we hear God telling us is "Stop giving so much of yourself to please others and care for yourself. Stop worrying about whether what you are doing is "productive" and simply spend time hanging out with me so you can see how much I love you." The catch, of course, is that this obedience requires us to give up some old goals of controlling our destiny.
I have always had a sense I was supposed to get along with less. I used to think it was so I could protect and insulate myself in my old age, so I would be independent and beholden to no one. I now realize I have been schooled in getting along with less because I'm simply supposed to get along with less "stuff" and shoot for more "relationship." What I'm starting to see in the generation ahead of me is no one can control that stuff--no one dies old and independent--everyone old has to depend on a lot of somebodies. Old age puts that belt around your waist and takes you where you do not wish to go, and the way to survive it is not to fight tooth and nail for our independence but to instead become accepting of our dependence. For me, the first step in middle age is to become open and vulnerable to love in new ways--accepting I'll be hurt now and then and accepting I'll grieve. Only then, does divine hospitality enter.