The other night I held in my arms the infant child of good friends: a child who may not have long to live. The details are unimportant; suffice it to say that the diagnosis is severe, and the prognosis dire. But my friends have determined to love their child with every ounce of their being as long as he is with them in this world. And as I held him in my arms and looked down at his sweet, innocent face, and saw what a beautiful child he is, I was hit by a sense of how unfair it is. I’m sure his parents have had more than a moment or two of such feelings. And when you confront those feelings while you are holding in your arms a beautiful baby boy, you might ask yourself how you can ever trust God, who has tethered this child so tenuously to the life that he gave him.
If I were a consultant, and if God hired me, I’d have to tell God that one of his problems in the world today is that so many people don’t trust him. And it’s not because they are cynics, or contrarians; it’s because there is plenty of cause in every day life to wonder whether or not God is trustworthy. I won’t even posit a list of suggestions – you have all the material you need, I’m sure, to come up with your own. Let the infant boy who snuggled against my chest the other night provide sufficient cause to wonder whether or not God is trustworthy.
We hear Jesus today teaching his disciples how to pray – his simple prayer of reverence, obedience, sustenance, and forgiveness. And when Jesus goes on to expand on his teaching he makes this promising statement: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find it; knock and the door will be open for you.”
Oh, if only this were true! But you know already that the prayers of my friends were not answered when they heard the news that their child would not be long for this world. (And, of course, you know of your own unanswered prayers.) Such bad news has the power to rob a child of his beauty, to make it seem as though this child - who cannot suckle as other children do, who is not growing the way that other children do, who cannot develop the way that other children do – is a less beautiful work of God’s own fingers. Because what parent does not hope and pray for a perfect child? To borrow from the Gospel: you pray to God for an egg, and then for a perfect child to be born from that egg; you trust in God not to give you a scorpion, so to speak.
This, of course, is what we assume that God is doing when imperfect children are born, as they are every day of the week: we assume that God is giving a scorpion, when an egg – and a healthy, perfect child emerging from it – was what was asked for. How can you trust such a God? This seems like a fair question when you are veering toward resentment that the child in question is so imperfect, so fatally flawed, and, therefore, such a failed attempt on God’s part to meet your expectations of what your child should be, must be.
And it is true that the child I held the other day is quite literally, fatally flawed. And as long as I can see him only as such a child, I am doomed to resent God because of him, bound to conclude that God is not trustworthy, because he has failed to deliver on the promise, failed to give what was asked for, failed to disclose what was searched for, failed to open the door of happiness that was knocked at.
My friends flirted with this resentment – I expect they still do from time to time, maybe even on a daily basis. But, they also decided to see their child differently: not as the embodiment of a fatal flaw, and as an unanswered prayer, but as a child who bears the imprint of God’s own fingers. Which is to say that my friends began to see their son as God sees him. And they also decided to let God decide (so to speak) how long or how short this child’s time on this earth will be, knowing that, painful though it is for them, it doesn’t make their son any less beautiful.
For weeks and weeks, I could see almost none of this, despite my long conversations with them, and my daily prayers for them, and my desire to empathize with them. For weeks and weeks my only thoughts of this child were gripped by worry, and anxiety, and fear. For weeks and weeks, I had never actually picked up the child and held him in my own arms.
And then, I did.
And when I looked at him, and felt him snuggling there – generously allowing himself to be taken from his mother’s arms – I could see nothing but a beautiful baby boy. I could not see his fatal flaw (though I know it’s there). For a few minutes, or more, I was privileged to see him, perhaps, as God sees him: as a beautiful child who needs the love and the care of his parents, even if it will be for a much shorter time than a supposedly more perfect child would require.
Of course it is not so simple – life never is. It is complicated, and frightening, and painful. And it is enough to make you want to give up on the whole notion of trusting God.
But when you are holding a child in your arms whose whole future depends on a the grace of God, what else can you do but trust the One who made him in the first place not to forsake him, not to forsake you? And what makes him different, in that respect, from any other child (or from you and me) – whose whole future depends on God?
Who or what you put you trust in is, in part, a matter of what you see around you, and how you evaluate whatever it is you see. And I admit that I found it very hard to trust God about this child – and I would not have blamed my friends for giving up on trusting God either – before I held their boy in my arms, and saw him for what he truly is. Which is not an imperfect child whose fatal flaw is cause for worry, anxiety, and fear for those who love him, but a perfect imprint of some beautifully imperfect aspect of God, who, tragically, cannot survive long in this world.
This is not to fall back on the old platitude that God makes no mistakes. Rather, it is to say, that if I can see the beauty in a child – any child – can you imagine what God can see?
For it would seem that there is a part of God that has a hole in his heart, and a malformed brain, and a disfigured smile, and undeveloped lungs, and a hundred thousand imperfections like the imperfections borne by the imperfect children, who nevertheless bear God’s image in the world – if only for a fleeting moment (or less) before their light goes out and they are known no more.
Of this we can be assured because it is, of course, God’s own story: his perfect Son: beaten, bloodied, and killed so as to become an unrecognizable image of the perfection whence he came, and yet the perfect icon of it. How can his lifeless form, hanging on a cross, elicit trust in the One who sent him into the world for this? Which is an eminently reasonable thing to ask as you contemplate the crucified Lord, and wonder what sort of God could countenance this cruelty. And you may continue to see it this way, and struggle to put your trust in God… until the day you are willing to hold Christ in your arms, to cradle his head against your chest, to welcome him into your life – as either infant or corpse – and look at him, and see him as God sees him: as a child of beauty, who bears God’s own perfect image, because in his bloodied brokenness, and in his death he has become the perfect image of God’s love.
If I were a consultant, I would tell God not to operate this way. I would tell God to operate more like Toyota, making sure to give people exactly what they want: perfectly rendered answers to their prayers. And like most advice from consultants, my advice to God would make perfectly good sense. I’d tell God to make sure that people found him at least as trustworthy as a car manufacturer, for instance.
But God’s ways are deeper than my ways, his thoughts are more complex than my thoughts.
And the strange thing is that when you cradle an imperfect child in your arms, about whom you have known so far only worry, anxiety, and fear, and you look down into his face, and see him for the beautiful boy that he is, then you begin to feel that maybe God can be trusted, even in such dire circumstances, even though you cannot explain why this is happening, or what it’s all about. But you choose to trust - which only makes sense when you are holding this deeply imperfect life in your arms, and you can see not only that he is beautiful, but also, that you love him. It is only in love that we discover that even the imperfect is the answer to our prayers, the object we were searching for, and the answer to the door on which we knocked.
And the really painful part, is that having discovered this truth – having seen the perfect image of God even in an imperfect child – we remember that he will not be long for this world (which is as it must be), we will have to let him go, give him up, trust in God, which has become so much harder since we learned to see him as he truly is – as God sees him - and to love him.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
28 July 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia