Describe the Indescribable: Go

Describe the Indescribable: Go

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 people have penises and 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.

5 Comments on “Describe the Indescribable: Go

  1. Well, I think I’m one of those friends you discussed in the beginning. I really enjoyed your story and have thought about this story often since you shared it with me over dinner, and was glad for the chance to reread it, and it felt good to see it was just as I’d remembered. In the moment, I was silent because there was so much to take in – How do you explain God to a toddler? What is important in these conversations? What do I hold most important that I’d like to share with my future potential children?

    Here is what I know about what I’d like to communicate as a parent: some people believe in God, some don’t, and each person needs to determine what that journey looks like. Moving towards God (and like the discussion above there is something to be said for the other names, certainly) is a quest of sorts that each person experiences, and for each person it takes their whole lifetime. The outer workings of that quest look different for different people – and it’s not a part of our journey to look as an outsider at the quest of another, since it’s such a personal journey. We can learn more about God by talking to others about their journey and sharing our own. With that said, the idea of this conversation makes me incredibly nervous. In some ways I dread it, especially the initial conversations. As you said very well, it’s describing the indescribable. In some ways in my own family, I think the topic will come up quite naturally and at quite a young age because my partner has a developed spiritual tradition with all the outer workings (that are easier to see, especially for a young child looking in) that go along with. My own spiritual tradition is quiet, contemplative, personal, private. It will be very clear to my future children that there isn’t one way to access the spiritual nature of the world, and that makes me happy. Well then, what am I dreading? Well, it’s an important conversation. And, it’s scary. I suppose I’d be worried about oversimplifying things or making it appear as if there were absolutes where none exist. The beginning of something is important, because the blocks are built up after rely on that foundation. That said, my background in child development reassures me a bit. Toddlers are amazingly smart (certainly more than they are given credit for), but fact is they won’t remember much of what they are told at this point. They will watch, observe, and decide for themselves. It’s not that what I say won’t be important, but what I do will be much more influential for the child. What will my children see? I hope, two parents who love him/her and model that love within the family, so that when God is connected to love, that child understands what that means. I hope, a family that makes decisions together (with healthy boundaries of course), so that when that child is learning about a relationship with God, it’s as one of someone he/she is sitting side by side with (as mentioned in comments, a friend), and not one with power-over on high looking down on us. If I had a direct conversation, I know that a young child would want clear descriptions and absolutes. To be honest – I’m not sure I would say there was or wasn’t a God. I would explain some people believe in God. Knowing children, he/she would ask if I believe in God. I would say yes. I know this would shape his/her belief more than anything else at that point (what his/her parents thought), but I’d want it to start with this – believing in God, and your relationship to that personhood is a choice, and you have the power to make it and define it yourself. But again, that’s not much of a basis for a concrete discussion when young children who really do want something they can touch and hold.

    So, I get a little stuck when thinking about what I would tell a future son/daughter about God, but I think – like you, I’ll just have to encounter it as a surprise and take it from there. I have, however, been thinking about King Sturdy and what in the world I would have said to him in that situation. I would have been even more stuck than I think I’d be with my own kids, because I’d be concerned about saying something that wasn’t in line with your family beliefs. But anyway, when I think of that conversation – this is what I think. (Since I don’t have children, I can’t help but thinking ‘what in the world would I have said in that situation?’ – that is, after I would have to silently tell myself ‘don’t f*@k this one up!’) As soon as I started thinking about it – I came up with this: God is like the spicy. (Nope, it was not a fully developed thought at this point). I think of King Sturdy encountering the world through his senses – he wanted to see God, right? And then I think of all the other senses we have. The sense of taste came up – it’s kind of a soft sense in that it’s not something that is super concrete, and it’s also a sense that people interpret differently. I also think of King Sturdy when he tries something new to eat, makes a face, rubs his tongue and says “spicy!” It’s incredibly cute. (I’m not sure why he does that – new tastes? something he doesn’t like?) I also think about his affinity for salt (maybe it’s just the routine of making choices during dinner time). King Sturdy is just building his sense of taste, like he’s building his own spiritual sense. You can’t see spicy. You can taste it. Can you look at spicy? No. Is there spicy? You bet’cha. Does everyone think _______ (any food here) is spicy? Nope. You may eat something and think it’s spicy that mom and dad think isn’t spicy at all. How do you know there is a spicy? Because you taste it. The connection here is that there are things you can’t see with your eyes, but you can experience through your other senses, and God is like that. Taste is something you can’t see or quantify, and it differs from person to person (what one person may find “spicy” – for example a certain spiritual tradition – just won’t work for everyone). Like taste, which can be experienced but not seen, love is also something that can only be experienced but not seen, but is completely real. I like how you connected love to God throughout your answers to your son (and listening with your heart).

    That said, I rest a little easier knowing that although that first conversation is incredibly important, there are so many that come after, and there is a life of experience (personal and observation) that will go with it. Building on that – children also develop their sense of God in a beautiful and simple way when they are still quite young (I also really related to your own mention of your relationship with God at a younger time and how important and different that is – that part of your journey sounds much like my own).

    Another friend shared on fb (same day I read your post, actually) a conversation he had with his six-year-old daughter about God. He doesn’t believe in God, his wife is still figuring it out (aren’t we all?). Here is their conversation: “Daddy, you know how you don’t believe there is a God?” “Yes.” “Well, what if there is a God?” “That could be true.” “Well, I believe in him, but I’m not totally sure. And even if there is a God, I don’t think anything bad would happen to you just because you don’t believe in him, cuz I don’t think he would do that. So it’s totally okay that I believe in God and you don’t believe in God.”

    That child is only six years old! Look at that reasoning. Look at that compassion. I wanted to share it, because this is where the conversation leads in the years ahead.

    That said, I wanted to thank you for sharing your story, both here and with me personally. I think it’s incredibly beautiful and it’s really meaningful. It’s a really significant step in your child’s life – he’s growing up to be a little person so very quickly. I like that you met him where he is at. I like that you asked him questions. I like that this is the beginning of many conversations to come.

    When it comes to spirituality, and such an important conversation, it’s really a very personal matter. So, it really doesn’t matter what I think. But as your friend, I do have to say one thing.

    You done good.

  2. Yes, Hashem … that name is special to me. I think there’s power too in “The Name.” One name that felt really right to me the other night was “Friend” – your Friend is available, ever-present, here with you. That’s the God I know.

    The other name that I like and use often is “the great good world.”

    Together these ideas are a kind of sketch, broad-brush strokes that thrust onto the page a picture of God that I do believe: somewhere between the personal and the universal, the presence that imbues all things, the life in the world, in the stones and trees, as well as the creator-person behind them – a few rough lines quickly drawn, which suggest a much greater picture. Sketches are good for that.

    I like what you said about the One who’s not envisioned as in control so much as partnering. That resonates for me. It’s one of the things I know to be true about God – that we say yes to each other, partnering on the life and the world that we create together.

    Your words about bringing heaven down brought tears to my eyes. I’m glad for what you said – not in torment, but at peace, partnering to bring heaven down. That is good and beautiful.

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