So my sixteen year-old son, Evan, and I had a conversation a while ago about “his relationship with God” and what such a statement might mean. For those of you who don’t know Evan, he’s a great kid—you’d really like him. Since Evan is a student at the diminutive public school at which I teach, most of my colleagues have told me more than a couple “Evan stories” that recount his in-classroom, larger-than-typical discussion responses and involvement in whatever is going on in class. Evan is clever, witty, and usually wanting to know how he can engage and apply. A broad path of personality that runs smack down the middle of his persona-mapping is the tendency to tell you exactly what he thinks. This is refreshing in some situations, but as you can imagine can also be a personality point that results in many moments of unseasoned comments which produce wringing of parental hands and patriarchal wailing and gnashing of teeth. Especially if Evan knows you well, rest assured that you will get exactly what he means.
“I don’t know if I really love God, Dad.” The statement fell flat in his bedroom. Sixteen years of careful (and conservative) Christian education, replete with twelve years of ABeka-anchored elementary homeschooling, obligatory Sunday school attendance, and fairly consistent daily mealtime devotions slowly drained from the room. He continued, “I mean, how can you truly love someone that you never have really met—someone who has never made it beyond something-that-you-study or read stories about?” I resisted the slight father-vertigo feeling to engage him in the memory of the “day he invited Jesus into his heart,” and let his statement stand.
I even conceded his question with a paternally-thoughtful nod, a murmured, “Hm. I see” or something, and we followed an unmemorable decline into some other course of discussion. The dwindling conversation wasn’t because I was scared of talking honestly with my kid; I have (mostly) enjoyed the candor with which my kids and I can step into the untouchable topics that make some parents queasy.
No, the blank wall that Evan’s admission created was a wall that I have sensed many times before in my own heart. I think it’s because so much of my own spiritual journey has been rather textbooked, Sunday-schooled, evangelicalized, that my relationship with God is mostly made up of what I believe about God. If you’re really talking about relationship, such a realization is really a big problem. So much of what I see about the “spirituality” of my own life and the lives of most of my close friends, is really only about precept and concept. Sure, there’s a personalized twist to some of my more sophisticated religious meanderings and discussions with companions, but at the end of the day, God often remains a biblical abstract, relegated to a deity defined by old Semetic oral traditions that generally contradict a lot of increasingly-impalatable, 1st-century Pauline ecclesiastic admonitions. Lots of the praise songs in church insist that God is “my all in all,” or that “He means everything to me.” Those are pretty big claims. In many ways, Evan’s complaint that it’s hard to love a Someone-Intangible is my own, and is only a small step away from refusing to believe in a Someone-Imaginary. It takes somebody with my son’s relational verve to just out-and-out state the fact.
I have this retreat, a sanctuary to which I retire (daily) where I read Scripture, pray, and write (to God), but it’s also a place I go when I need a to do a bit of complaining, wondering, meditative wrangling, even emotional and spiritual wound-licking, a place that has changed locationally throughout the years. Back when I was a tougher dude, it was mostly outside in our back woods or up-and-down our street. The car headlights of my early-morning-commuter neighbors would often pick me out as I tramped along Coventry Drive during snow, wind, or whatever freezing-pelt a New Hampshire early morning could produce. Now, I’m much more mature, uh—contemplative, I guess—so a cushy chair by the woodstove usually will suffice. It’s a place I’ve often told God to meet me. I fancy, like Moses’ Tent of Meeting, or the Hebrew tabernacle of old, that it has switched around from place to place through my forty years or so of spiritual/theological wilderness wandering.
Early the next morning, I entered my sanctuary and put Evan’s question out there. “So how does my son get to know you? Where are you, God, in the midst of his 21st century millennialistic, postmodern-restructuralist mindset? How will Evan ever come to know You? He’s sixteen, and hasn’t seen or heard anything from You. It’s all been about what he’s been told. What in his life shows that You care—or much more, desire some love relationship with him? What in his life even proves that You exist?”
It’s the word that my hand kinda-sorta automatically wrote in my spiral notebook.
And then I thought back over the (especially last few) years regarding my own doctrinal strayings, my rejections of denominationalisms, my private failures and half-lived determinations. Through all the chaos of unwillingness to have God as “He has always been,” I could see very easily in my metaphysic efforts that all-important thread to be alive, challenged, fully invested as one who pursues The Voice.
I looked outside the window to where the flaming foliage began to coalesce into predawn light. Trees, woods, a half-light, that has seen me these many years, pursuing my life within so that I might live and love a significant life without. The memories, the notebooks, the margins of my Bible littered with decades-long annotations—struggles and triumphs.
And then, with Evan: the living-room talks, the backpacking, the Santa excitements, the fort building, the costume closets, the silly songs, the wood cutting, the sledding and snowshoeing, the thousands of photographs, the laughter, the determined resolve, the arguing and wrangling, the shouted anger against fraternal betrayal, hours of family videos that show a life filled of a dad loving his “rollicking rooster of a boy.”
“He knows you, Tom,” I wrote.
“You have become Me because I have tabernacled with you.”
“You, most-beloved son, have become Evan’s Emmanuel.”
--“Dad, how can I love someone I’ve never met?”
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
…and now this mystery of Christ dwells within you….
And so the design, the blueprint, of Who It Is I Am Becoming, slowly merged from the basement darkness into the early morning light, casting familiar features from around the room. I looked again to what I had written in my spiral: “You, most-beloved son, have become Evan’s Emmanuel.”
“You can know God, Evan, because you know me”: It’s what I wish I had said.