The other night, King Sturdy wasn’t tired at bedtime because he’d had a late nap, and also because he was scared of the lion and the tiger in his room.
I am not about to say, “There’s no lion.” That’s just not helpful.
I think it’s more useful to give a kid a talisman, some kind of magic that’s able to withstand the bogey and keep the child safe. The bogey may be imaginary, but the fear is real: the sense of doom in the room is not imaginary. The fact of danger in the world, of which the child is aware, isn’t imaginary either. So in another way, the bogey is absolutely real.
The magic is real, too, though: prayer, a physical object infused with love, the knowledge that your mother is in the next room, and would fight the lion for you if it came down to it …
I told my two-year-old that my love was in the room with him even when I wasn’t. That I was in the house, and that he could know that. That if a tiger got into his room, I would be able to hear it, and I would come in and make him safe. I sang this verse from the hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” one of his first lullabyes:
That soul who to Jesus has fled for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes.
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I will never, no never, no never forsake.
Even through my disillusionment, I’ve held onto this hymn. Partly because of how much it meant to me when I was going through a hell and this was the voice of God sending a breath of air to me in the smoke hole. Partly because the words are so good. This particular verse I’ve been glad to give my son, because I want him to know this love. This is the love I have for him, and it’s the love I’ve experienced from Jesus back when I had a simpler relationship with Jesus than I do now. It’s a fierce, saving love, and I want him to have that. That doesn’t mean I was prepared to talk to him about theology.
Commence the pop quiz
You are being graded by a two-year-old whose total innocence and trust is the most humbling, daunting standard you have ever faced in your life. Whatever you say right now, he’s going to believe it, no matter what it is.
1. Did Jesus die?
Yes. (That’s an easy one.)
2. Can we see God?
Well, yeah. We can see God in the world, and in each other. (I realize this makes no sense as I’m saying it. He’s asking a literal question and here I am with a figurative answer.) We can see God, but we see God with our hearts.
3. With our hearts?
Okay, you know how you can see with your eyes, and hear with your ears? Your heart sees things, too. Like sometimes your heart says, “I feel safe and happy.” That’s where you can see God, in your heart. That’s where God talks to you.
4. Does God talk?
Yes, God talks to you in your heart. (I question everything that’s coming out of my mouth. This is all very abstract, and also, I’m scared I’m going to tell him something I don’t actually think is true. I mean I’m not even sure God cares.) Just not with words.
5. Does Jesus have words?
(Whew, easy one.) Yes, Jesus has words. He said a lot of words. His followers wrote his words down, what they heard him say. We have those words they wrote down in a book, in the Bible.
6. I want to see God when I wake up in the morning.
Oh. Well, we don’t see God with our eyes like that. We see God in the trees when they move in the wind, and we see God in each other. I see God in you when you tell me you love me, or when you share with me. I see God in me when I’m chasing the raccoons away from the chickens. We can see God in everything. God is everywhere.
7. God is here?
(Trick question: what if that idea is scary to him? I don’t want him to get creeped out by God. Anyway, God is available, not intrusive — they don’t force themselves on anyone. Answer the question with a question.) What do you think?
“Yeah,” he says.
I ask him to lie down on his back. I lie down next to him, and we look up at the ceiling.
“Look around at the room. Do you think it’s full of God?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Just like the room is full of my love for you, even when I’m a different room. God is your friend. Your friend is always there for you. Any time you need help, you can say, ‘God, I need your help.'”
“God, I need your help,” he says thoughtfully. His small child’s voice overwhelms me.
Here’s the thing
I used to have a lot of words to talk about God. I used to have a cohesive worldview which was beautiful and healthy, and I knew how to articulate its finer points.
Then over a period of years I deconstructed everything, lost a lot, gained some other stuff and ended up realizing I needed to go home, as Thich Nhat Hanh said. I went back to my Judeo-Christian roots, but I wasn’t sure I could call myself a Christian anymore. I wasn’t sure I actually believed in God. Belief is a funny thing … it’s either there or it’s not.
These days, I feel better than ever about God. There’s a large, generous warmth in my relationship with the divine. But it’s pretty well wordless. I don’t assent to much of what’s written about God. Most of the time I feel theology misses the boat. I don’t talk to God much. I don’t talk about God much, either, anymore. I think there’s a lot to be said for that.
So this conversation I had with my son really threw me. I’m used to being able to put things to words: difficult, taboo, awkward, ineffable. I love talking with him, introducing him to everything from how bread dough rises to why boys have penises and girls have vulvas. Whenever we talk, I feel his trust in me and his perfect lack of baggage, his willingness to take in whatever I say and build a world with it.
Normally, that’s both humbling and thrilling. This time, I felt paralyzed.
I didn’t know how to put into words what I actually believe. The moment I’d start, I’d realize I had just said something I’m not sure of. The last thing I want is to send untruths into him. I don’t want to fill him with clichés or theological right answers; I hate that stuff.
I tried to tell my friends about this last weekend
I told the story and tried to say how the burden of King Sturdy’s beauty sat on me while I fumbled to find words that were worthy of his little being. But it was frustrating: one of those conversations where you wonder why you tried. It ended up going down a trail about how God is ultimately indefinable, and words are really approximations anyway; one mustn’t get too attached to them. I already agree with all that. The inarticulate side of the relationship, I have no problem with. What I wanted, I told them irritably, wasn’t to dissect my worldview but to share this beautiful, daunting moment with them and, I don’t know, maybe to see what names they use for God. To brainstorm names.
But that wasn’t it either.
It took me a couple days to figure out why I’d brought it up with them. The crux of it was the fact that I found myself having to talk about something I realized I couldn’t talk about, aware all the while that whatever words I stumbled out would be the ones he’d have to build with.
“If you don’t know what to call God,” a friend said, “why don’t you ask King Sturdy what he thinks? Maybe he could come up with his own name.”
That was helpful. When a student asked Morihei Ueshiba for the name of the Aikido technique he’d just learned, the master said, “Give it your own name. That will make it more personal.” I love the notion of a personal name for God. Like a lover’s secret you share with the ultimate.
“Play,” someone else said. Lots of words, even if they’re all imperfect, will correct each other in time and point, in the end, to the source.
“Smells like Mommy poop,” King Sturdy told me. We were still lying on our backs, looking up at the ceiling, talking about how God was everywhere. This was a change of subject.
“Is God in the poop?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said and started to laugh.