[This is the text of my talk at Houghton last Monday.]
One consuming aspect of my life, which you can’t tell, hopefully, just by looking at me, is that I have a lot of children—well, not that many objectively, but by today’s standards. I have six, and wherever I go with all of them, I get lots of nods and ‘you sure have your hands full.’ I always want to hold up my hands and say, ‘not really, I’m not carrying anything at the moment, except maybe a beautiful handbag.’ But I never do. The commiserating accusation is that I, as a person with a lot of children, have an over awesome responsibility that sets me apart. The underlying assumption is that having children is 1. Completely Absorbing 2. Too hard for the average person and 3. Going to ruin your life. With maybe 3.2 Too Expensive. If you do have them, and you survive, you deserve a major treat.
Having so many children as I do, it is impossible for me to find anything to watch on television with them. Once a week, we gather in the living room to watch a ‘family movie’. But that’s actually too hard. There are no movies acceptable at the same moment to two teenagers, three smaller girls, and a boy who likes explosions. We finally gave up and watched all the available episodes of the Great British Baking Show. When that was over we suffered profound loss. Then we found Grand Designs. This comprises a nice British man wandering around countryside checking up on the very rich as they build strange modern/postmodern houses on top of the rolling English countryside.
You’d be surprised what motivates people to build their own houses. Equal measures of foolhardiness, cheerful reality denying optimism, and wanting to have everything Just So. Its a charming program.
Our favorite house was built by a retired couple with grown children. These two had lots of money—plenty more than you are probably experiencing right now. They wanted to live by the seaside in their retirement. As close, in fact, to the sea as they could get. But the thing about so many coast lines is that eventually the land part erodes into the ocean and is eaten up by water. One clever way to get around this problem is to build a house well away from the actual sand, or up on a rock cliff or something. But this couple just wanted to be Near the Sea.
You know, they had worked hard, they had earned the money,
they had brought up two children. They just needed the perfect place to retreat. They deserved it. So they spent something like 800,000 pounds—which is a lot more in dollars—building a house on a patch of ground, sandy ground, that, as they gazed out of their gorgeous huge insulated window, they could actually see falling away into the sea. They would go out after a storm and try to put some of the earth back, but it took up a lot of energy. When the host of the program asked them, when it was all built, if they were going to be sad when, in less than a generation, it had fallen fully and finally into the sea, they said,
Meh. We were building it for ourselves.
Shortly after watching this remarkable episode I happened to read God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis. Let me quote God and Abraham talking together,
“After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
Abraham repeats his complaint. Do you see it? ‘Oh Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?’
And then again, ‘Behold you have given me no offspring.’
We can’t really imagine the catastrophe of not having children
in our own day and place. When I was a little girl I had to endure a long car ride from my village in Mali, West Africa, over a very bad dirt road, sweltering in the dank humidity of hot season, with no air conditioning, on those plastic seats to which your skin adheres irrevocably, through a complicated boarder crossing, further south into the center of Ivory Coast and eventually all the way to the coast to our mission headquarters. But there, in the center, we stopped in a town to leave off another little girl who had sat next to me on the sticky seat, blubbering. She was leaving her home, her family, her mother, to go be the child of her aunt who had no children. Her aunt couldn’t imagine the future with no child—no one to grow up and take care of her in the future, no one to help her cook and keep life in the present,
no one to carry on her memory at her death. There had to be a child, and so this other little girl was sent, as a gift really, to the one who had no hope. Of course she, the little girl, didn’t feel the goodness of what was happening. All she was looking at was loss.
The loss that Abraham feels when God asks him to take the son that he was finally given and ‘give him back’ to use a more palatable euphemism for sacrifice.
Abraham felt he had nothing when he had no child. God had given him wealth, prosperity, peace with his neighbors, stature in the retrospective eyes of history—we might say that God gave Abraham everything that We would value. Wealth, ease, prosperity, respect. What more could you want? If you have that, and can turn it into a comfortable place to spend your retirement, to indulge your passions and recline in the grace of your ordered life, what more could you want?
I mean, I dream, I imagine, I lie in bed at night and imagine what my house will be like when my children are all off living their lives. When I won’t wake up in the morning to trip over the detritus of childhood—candy wrappers, shoes, disgusting socks, torn books, dolls with limbs missing, little bits of minuscule lego that embed deeply into the bottom of the bare foot. Most of the time I don’t feel like I’ve been given a gift. I feel the weight of my responsibilities and the mountain of work I have to climb up every day to make sure that everyone is fed, clothed, educated. Its not my idea of a present.
And this is one reason I think so many of us modern people have such a hard time even hearing the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, let alone being satisfied with it.
Because it centers on another person—an infant in the beginning, Isaac, but ultimately in God who divulges himself, who reveals his person in the most delayed, the hardest to see kind of glory. At the center of the gospel is the longing for the one who comes after you, the waiting all your life for someone you only get a glimpse of now.
But that’s what Abraham wanted. He didn’t want the money, the comfort, the ease of life for himself. He wanted the one who would come after him, the one who would guarantee the hope of a future. His great longing, his desperate hope for a child is woven through the scripture all the way to Mary, who is given that very gift in a way that feels exactly the way you would Not like to receive a present. All the things that Abraham had—status, wealth, respectability, comfort—are wrenched out of Mary’s grasp when she gets given the incredible gift of Jesus. You cannot imagine a more precarious place for her, except perhaps to be like Elizabeth, to have no child at all.
Its hard for me to see Mary’s joy—or rather, I see it but I can’t imagine feeling so happy about something that will make me so uncomfortable and ashamed before all my fellow people. Mary, Abraham, Eve, Elizabeth, Simeon—saw it. But me?
In this self centered, instantly gratified world, where so many things are tailored to me—the easy movement of the finger on a screen, the specialized coffee, the clothes and shoes that if they don’t perfectly satisfy me can be returned or thrown away, the mattresses that remember who I am and the very contours of my body, the world’s food brought to incandescent display cases to tempt and allure me—everything is about me, or maybe you. Maybe you’re the center of your cosmos. In an age where nothing has to be waited for, how can a gift received by you really be about Someone Else? Another person, perhaps, but more even, God? If I myself am not at the center, how do I go on?
The curious thing about children, though, is that they are the living picture of you going on. In their troublesome selves, they illuminate the gospel for the watchful person. To have a baby means that you have to die to yourself. You have to chose the life of another person over your own in a way that rescues your essential person. When you have a child, in a practical sense, you get to experience what Jesus says is necessary for you to find him, you lose yourself.
Of course, you can always snatch yourself back, as so many of us do. And, mercifully, actually giving birth to children is not the only way to experience the life saving loss of yourself. Any time you let another person go ahead of you, any time you invest in some person who can’t immediately give you anything back, any time you chose to risk your comfort now for the sake of another, you are tasting a little of the promise of Abraham, you are experiencing first hand what would it would have been like for Mary saying yes to Jesus. Although, I won’t lie, losing yourself for the sake of the child is probably the easiest, most obvious way to test out what it’s like.
And, of course, I don’t really want to completely lose myself
in the lives of my children. They will certainly fail me, as surely as the sand will fall away into the sea. But what if I put myself into the hands of the one who made the sand, who owns the sea, who is obeyed by the wind, who holds all of it together in himself?
To really see the incredible gift of God’s mercy we have to go to a completely different kind of world—a place where the future is more important than what I experience now. A place of joy deferred. A realm where the other person goes on ahead of me and who I am and what I need right now.
Because for Abraham and Mary, and Elizabeth, and hopefully that little girl who was given to her aunt as a present, and me and you, and all who believe, joy deferred is still joy. Abraham had his son given back to him. And then we went on to see the face of the real promise, the person who came as a baby, first, but who lived and died to the uttermost not for himself but for you.
The joy of that gift is profound. In this life you should feel like you are always looking to the next, to the moment of true joy.If you waver, if you think that you can have the joy now, that your house on the sand by the sea is the best you can ever hope for, your hope is then faltering, guaranteed to fail you, to erode.
But if you defer, if you keep your eye fixed not only on the one coming after, but on the one who is coming again, the house, the rest, the joy will be more than you can possibly imagine.