Jesus the Toddler

This is not going to be about what Jesus was like as an actual toddler (although it’d be fun to imagine what a prayer to Jesus-as-toddler might be, a la Ricky Bobby’s prayer to Jesus-as-baby, “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin’ at the air.”)

Instead, this is about flipping the usual parenting analogy. Most spiritual analogies that involve parenting have God as the Heavenly Parent and us as the unruly, slightly stupid, and really stubborn children. Here, we’re the parent and Jesus is the toddler.

Let me set it up.

I was reading Isaiah last week (in my 3-year-long journey to read the Bible from beginning to end, yes, I’m only up to Isaiah) and came across this from 59:9,10,12:

So there is no justice among us,
we know nothing about right living.
We look for light but find only darkness.
We look for bright skies but walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall,
feeling our way like people without eyes….
For our sins are piled up before God
and testify against us.

And the image of our sins piled up before God struck me. I imagined a tower of blocks — childhood toy blocks. Probably because those are the kinds of tall piles I’ve made, over and over, while playing with children, both mine and others’.

I stack the blocks and the kid knocks them down — gleefully. And cries, “Again!” I race to build as much of the tower as I can before the kid knocks it down. And then we do it all over again, and again, and again. The kid has endless energy for knocking that tower down.

Isn’t this like Jesus? We’ve got this tower of sins that blocks us from God and Jesus knocks it down. That’s what Christians celebrate at Easter.

I have a vivid mental image of a particular little boy I had in children’s worship last year who’d let me build a tower of blocks as tall as him before he’d bust it down with the most delicious belly laugh and victorious jumping up and down. I like this image for Jesus scattering my tower of sins because it punctures my angst and navel-gazing with a KAPOW!

But I’m not done.

Here’s where the analogy stretches a little, because it isn’t Jesus begging us to build up the tower of our sins again, it’s us. We take the things we’ve already been forgiven of, things that are laying scattered on the floor, and stack them back up. We cannot give them up.

I guess I’m assuming things about you, but I can tell you with full confidence that there’s a lot I have a hard time giving up.

  • Any stupid or unkind thing I’ve said.
  • Confidences I failed to keep.
  • Plans to help someone that I never acted on.
  • Disciplines I haven’t been able to keep up.
  • An unwise decision I made in college that I asked forgiveness for several times because I kept forgetting whether I’d done it.
  • Excessive use of sarcasm with my children.
  • Irritability with my family.
  • Anger and bitterness that I can leave on the floor for months before letting them sneak back up into a wall.
  • Crippling disappointment — I say “crippling” because there’s plenty of fleeting disappointment, but I’m talking about that Job-level of complaint, “I’ve done so many things right. Why isn’t X going like I want it to?” Which is really this in disguise: “I’d run my life so much better than you, God!”
  • The need to both be right and be acknowledged as right. About way too many things.
I ask to be forgiven and Jesus knocks down my tower, KAPOW. Then, while we’re laughing and gleeful, I scoop a few blocks back and stack them. Jesus knocks them down with a karate kick this time. I try to hide the tower, to prevent him from knocking it down, so I build it behind me. But he finds it and body slams it. Even while I’m smiling at some of those blocks that flew all the way across the room, out of my reach (for now), my fingers scrabble for other blocks and…. You get the picture.
In real life, I, the adult, get tired of this game long before the toddler does. Loooong before. Similarly, Jesus does not tire of knocking down my tower of sins. He’ll do it every time I ask.
What kind of difference might it make to pray, “Jesus, I’m tired, so tired of building up this particular tower. Help me keep that block on the floor”?
My prayers are getting simpler as I get older. And I tend not to dictate as much to God exactly how things should look or go, at least as far as my spiritual life goes. Because I don’t want to limit God’s creativity. Maybe, if I notice the tower I keep rebuilding and admit my exhaustion and ask for help, instead of just knocking it down, Jesus will shrink those blocks, a little more every time I ask, until they’re so small that I go to rebuild it and can’t find them. There may be new blocks, but at least Jesus will have taken care of those old ones.
What’s in your tower? Are you as tired as I am of rebuilding with the same $%*^ blocks, over and over again?


Humbling: Being the Problem

In the summer of 2007, I was freelance editing this book: A Practical Guide for Life and Ministry: Overcoming 7 Challenges Pastors Face, by David Horner. It was a good project, pretty well-written and well-organized, with engaging stories about church life and what seemed like good advice. I was well into Section Five: Learning to Grow Through Your Troubles. I was shaking my head at all the terrible congregants who make life difficult for their pastor. At least I wasn’t one of “those.”

Until, of course, I was.

Right smack dab in the middle of editing that section, I lost it at church. I’m not saying I raised my voice or snapped at someone. I went ballistic: high-pitched, barely intelligible screaming and crying to one person on the phone in front of someone else. I wrote an impassioned email to my pastor. Because I was right. And because I’d worked so hard at the church for so long, I had no doubt that he’d see my rightness, too.

Thank God he didn’t.

A little background. One year earlier, our church administrative assistant and my partner in the dance ministry was arrested for and charged  (later convicted) with embezzling money from the church and from our pastor. This was a serious sucker punch for me. I’d thought she was my friend. We not only danced together, but I also trusted her guidance when she told me God wanted us to “flow” in a given dance, which means we don’t choreograph it, we go where the Spirit leads us to. This was not in my tradition, but I prayerfully did it, and it was a tremendous and intense experience. We’d prayed and cried for and with each other. And we’d laughed so much.

The church didn’t handle it particularly well. As often happens in multiracial churches, everyone “went to their corner” and most of the white people voted with their feet, including almost all of the other children’s ministry leaders. We talked about leaving, too, but after a discussion with the pastor, decided to stay. The correct phrase for my attitude would be soldiering on. I went back to leading the children’s worship program (which I’d been about to hand off to someone else who left). Being one of what were now only two teachers, I was downstairs with the kids half of the time, two weeks on, two weeks off. We were also back to having all the kids together, age 3 through second grade, which leads to less worship and more crowd control.

I also wound up taking over the administration and leadership of our church’s Calvin Institutes of Worship grant. I went to the opening retreat/conference mostly because I was available during the day. The language on our grant application (done by the embezzler) was so garbled and jargony that I couldn’t understand what the grant was about, and I had to talk about it repeatedly. I was in tears or on the verge of tears almost the whole few days. But as the conference went on, God inspired me to really take charge of our group.

It was a tough year. We were all hurting, but gritted our teeth and pushed ahead. It was also a good year. Through studying multiracial worship and church life, we were drawn together and encouraged that what we were doing was worth it.

However, I know now that I kept a little part of my heart hard. I nursed grievances. I expected problems. And when my calculations for the grant disbursement didn’t match those of the money team, I lost it, utterly and completely, to one of our financial managers over the phone, screaming and getting nasty and personal in a way I will be ashamed of forever.

The pastors let things calm down for several days and then called a meeting. Nobody was treating me like I was right, so I wasn’t hearing anything until the woman I’d screamed at faced me and said, so simply and quietly, “I feel like you’re accusing me of doing what embezzler did.”

That’s exactly what I was doing. I’d never gotten the chance to confront my old friend, never gotten the chance to be upset with her, never dealt with the betrayal at all, so I took it out on this other woman. Everyone knows what it’s like to be blamed for something you didn’t do. It’s a horrible feeling. And I’d just done that to her at my highest possible decibel. I was the problem.

I cried and apologized profusely on the spot. I apologized to the man who’d witnessed my end of the phone call. And then a few months later, I confessed this story and asked forgiveness of the woman in front of our Women’s Fellowship group. She gave me her forgiveness, something I’ll always be grateful to her about.

And all the while, I had to edit these chapters about what it’s like for the pastor when there’s a problem person. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the defining moments in my church life. I am a better congregant, a better leader, a better Christian for having failed so spectacularly, for being forced into the humble position of asking for forgiveness and being granted it.

This experience also informed my recent decision to leave the church that had taken such good care of me in that low time of my life. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision done in a blaze of emotion. It was the culmination of a six-month period of prayer and conversation with my husband and with others. Even so, it’s breaking  my heart. This is the week of “lasts”: last praise team practice for my husband, and for me, the last time dancing with one of the kids, last time giving the second grade “graduates” their Bibles, last time leading children’s worship. It might be the last time I’ll worship with some people I love. I’ve been cleaning up my office and straightening up the story materials, finding old photos of now-big kids back when they were little, wallowing in nostalgia. I’m just plain sad. Grateful for how important this place has been to me, but sad.

No pithy ending for this longish post. It just isn’t in me today.