July 29th, it’s Friday and I am getting ready for a major change in my life. I am hitting the highway to Atlanta to our new apartment near the Schenck School where my wife is returning to teach. So, I will be becoming bi-locational, between the island and my birthplace of Atlanta. I find myself thinking like Sheldon Cooper, longing for a space transporter: Beam me up, Scotty! Alas, for now, it will be my ancient Tahoe transporting my Southside self between these two residences.
But more importantly, July 29th, it’s also my daughter, Mary Glen’s birthday, a date that proved to be another red-letter day signaling a huge change in my life…I became the father of a baby girl! My life would never be the same.
For now, I am writing in the present moment. I was leaving that morning for the drive to Atlanta. I had called her the day before to see if she could come over and help me move some boxes and duffel bags full of books to put in my new office in Atlanta. With my torn quad tendon in my left knee, I am restricted in my movements with my trusty Bat Masterson cane. With one hand on the top of the cane, and one holding the handle of a canvas bag stuffed and heavy with books, the physics of the moment confounded my brain, and laid waste to my knee.
She graciously agreed to help and showed up early with her cheerleader strength to assist her aging daddy. She brought with her a 2 lb. jar of the freshly harvested honey from her husband, Michael’s first hive here on the island. Beautiful. More importantly, it bought us some time together alone, to reflect on life, and some changes for both of us.
I tend to get nostalgic on my kids’ birthdays, remembering precise moments of how things went down. I mean, after all, this is salvation history. No virgin birth, as opposed to some of my critics’ speculation, but big stuff. I can get pretty weepy when I think about those magic moments of watching the messy mystery as life began for my two, each with a particular and peculiar feel.
The first one, Thomas, was a long delivery, with my wife’s water breaking at a Friday night dinner party with our close friends, who were destined to become godparents. Many hours later, Thomas crowned and was delivered by my close friend, Steve Moreland. Being the first child, it was an amazing sunrise, calling my mentor, Jim Fowler, and weeping together about this miracle.
The second pregnancy had me praying for a girl. I so wanted the experience of being a father to a girl. It was on a Sunday, and I had been at the Cathedral that morning. After church, I went to the Cowart’s home in Ansley Park for a reception/party for new members. It was there I got the call from Mary that it was time to get to Piedmont Hospital. This time, the delivery was very fast. When Mary Glen emerged, I screamed, “There’s no penis!” which was great news for this Southside boy. I got my girl. That’s exactly what I said when I went out into the waiting area to greet my parents with my good news.
These two have been the highlight of my life, giving me so much pleasure in watching their childlike wonder, evolving into growing, developing children, devolving into adolescence, and then the extended adolescence of college. I’ve gotten to witness my son’s courage in chasing a dream of music that vicariously fulfills my own longing. Every time he climbs courageously on a stage to sing songs that he wrote, I am filled with pride. And my daughter ventured out to St. Simons Island after college to begin a career in fashion, subsequently meeting a great young man, Michael. He grew up on this island and, now married, they are building a life together. Every so often, I am struck by the gift I have been given. This is one of those halcyon days.
This particular morning, before hitting the highway, I pulled off at Striplings to text my daughter on her birthday. I thanked her for her kindness in assisting me early in the morning. I thanked her for the honey Michael had harvested from his initial hives of bees here on the island. And, as she told me that she had made a special request to go fishing on the river for her birthday, I wanted to tell her how proud my grandfather and my mother would have been with that choice. It was one of those parental moments that happen every so often, when the sense of connection across generations was palpable, and to think that Henry Louis Gates was nowhere in sight.
It got me to thinking about the magic of birth, and the very gift of human life that we can tend to take for granted. My friend, Charlie Palmgren who wrote the book that I have been talking about for weeks, Ascent of the Eagle, often reminds me of an enigmatic phrase that Jesus said to his disciples: You must become like a child if you want to enter the realm of God.
What the hell does that mean? The images of my children flood my mind as I remember their fresh awareness of life, of the thrill of discovering everything that was new and fresh. Those wide-eyed looks, the unrestrained laughter at the surprise, their quizzical stares of wonder. What I can glean from my memory about becoming childlike, on this day of the celebration of the birth of my island girl.
The context of the comment by Jesus was a question about greatness among his students. Who will be the greatest in this new reality Jesus is inaugurating? This won’t be the last time this question of “standing” emerges among his followers, and seems to be as perennial as the wild flowers in the life of the church.
Rather than launch into a conceptual treatise on ontology, Jesus beckoned to a child and pulled him to his side as a living example. “Unless you become like a child, you will not be able to enter into my new way of being.” Obviously, Jesus was reading the lay of the land of his team. There were and would be disputes among them about which of them was the MVP, or MVD as the disciples might have framed it. But rank, or position was not the order of the day, the coin of this kingdom. The GOAT, or “greatest of all time”, that we hear a lot about “all da time” simply wasn’t in the vocabulary of Jesus or in his vision of the realm of God.
Let’s just admit, right here and now, this competition stuff is still hard for us. It goes against the way we are formed, the way we are raised. We want to be the favorite, the best, the top of the heap, to be at the head of the class of whatever organization we are in, be it a family, a classroom, a corporate team, even our churches. The vision of bishops gathered in those pointy hats called mitres, at Canterbury, reminded me of rank and hierarchy in my tribe. At one point in my so-called career, I longed for one as a validating symbol of my greatness, but I got over it, forcibly or through gained wisdom. Position is over-rated while the attitude of servanthood, under-valued.
Actually, the church can be THE worst in terms of competition. I know that for sure, as I have participated and traded in that stuff (cleaning it up for the sensitive). And I have witnessed it, suffered under it and can name names! What a wonderful surprising moment this week at Canterbury when Presiding Bishop Micheal Curry seemed to signal an unusual, perhaps miraculous. spirit of cooperation among the diverse constituency there assembled, even on the disruptive issue of sexuality. Holding my breath.
Back to Jesus’ admonition recorded in the first verses of Matthew 18. It really is in there, look it up….unless you become like a child.
Jesus is signaling to his followers that they should not be grasping at honor, much less power. They should take on a child-like presence, content with and relishing in the moment of being alive. My “best” current way of describing this state of being is being “110% present”, a gift given to me many years ago by my friend and colleague, John Scherer, who re-minded me of it a few weeks ago. 110 %. Really present to the moment. Leaning into the moment. When’s the last time you did that, or more accurately, “were” that, 110%? When I first heard John use it, it struck me as clever, a pithy way of getting his thought across to a bunch of leaders in training. But through the years, it has become a mantra for me, 110% present, something I say to myself before a session or a conversation, a “touch” stone that I rub, in order to re-mind me of being present….like that of a child.
A child’s eyes are wide open as they are taking in their environment, observant of sounds, movements, colors, tastes…an extravaganza of sensory experience and awareness. Through cultural formation and schooling, we have this awareness “ordered” and made proper, turning our wild, open, awareness into a careful, controlled consciousness. We are domesticated, civilized, so that we “fit” the roles, chosen and assigned. We become focused on survival, and are formed in the competitive code that is inserted into our psyche. We trade our birthright of a feast of awareness for porridge bowl of consciousness.
For us, the call of Jesus to return to childlike awareness seems fanciful, a throw-away line that we do exactly that. Rather than embracing Jesus’ admonition to take on a childlike awareness as a spiritual koan to be contemplated and or wisdom saying to be used as a prompt for wonder, we remove it from our canon of applicable scripture.
What does becoming childlike mean to you? How might you take this seriously? My daughter’s birthday prompted me to remember her as a child, and the freshness of awareness that somehow gets misplaced in the scramble. Try it on this weekend, this week ahead….hell, try it on now. Can you lean into the moment, opening your eyes to see, your ears to hear, to behold the miracle and mystery of the present moment? Jesus did not pull his punch here. Rather, he framed it pointedly…..UNLESS. Unless you take on this childlike mindset of presence, you will miss it. And what is “it”?
It’s simply everything.