The Thing Is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
Don’t be overly alarmed by the heaviness of the poem – this post is actually about babies. Yes, babies. A few friends back home and a co-worker here have just had babies, and I’m wondering how they must feel. Even people who are considerably older than me, and who I think of as real, mature adults, when I see pictures of them holding their newborn kids I can’t help noticing that they just look so vulnerable. We think of babies as fragile, but it also seems like babies make us fragile. One day you’re just an adult with your life generally in order and dealing with the same daily neuroses and failings you’ve been dealing with your whole life and then all of a sudden, your entire life is devoted to the care of another human being who is completely dependent on you. Oh and if you let its head drop, or set it down the wrong way, or wrap it up too tightly, or let it get too cold, or too hot, or anything, it might die. Why is it that the day your child is the absolutely most vulnerable is the day that you have the least amount of parenting experience? How has the human race survived at all?
And this was all God’s design. He was the one that gave us only a vague instinctual understanding of how to care for children. It was within His power to make humans naturally better at parenting, or to have human babies walk around on their own fifteen minutes after they’re born like giraffes, but no. They have to be taught, coddled, carried, soothed, essentially, at least one, if not two adult humans have to bring their lives to a screeching halt to make sure one child even makes it to age five. How evolutionarily inefficient.
So it must have been designed this way on purpose. What else could teach us even a shadow of what God’s unconditional love looks like than being willingly vomited on, screamed at, and even resented for eighteen years by someone you gave life to? Children seem to teach us the unglamorous, unreturned, ugly side of love.
But they also represent something else: hope. Children, babies, are an undeniable symbol of hope. A baby, as much as it is messy, is also the happy ending, the reason it was all worth it, the redemption in the darkest of situations. Babies represent new life, second chances, starting over; when we accept Christ we are “re-born,” Jesus told Nicodemus that there needed to be a “second birth.” Babies represent something so holy to us and close to the heart of God – redemption. And this is the gloriously optimistic, singing in worship, side of love and faith, isn’t it? The part of faith that tells us that you don’t have to be all the bad you have been, that you can leave that all behind, that from now on, you are a son or daughter of The King, and that your heart is transformed and that you will spend eternity in peace and joy worshiping your Creator. And so we cling to that hope, that blinding white light of it, and so we should, great things await us on our path home.
But then we look at our life, and we don’t feel all that sanctified, and we keep making the same mistakes, and we aren’t always filled with a peace that passes all understanding or life abundant or a complete joy. Days blur together and we snap at our loved ones, and we keep turning back to God thinking this time, this time, it will be different, this time my life won’t be so ugly. We see how God has worked in us slowly in the past, how he has sanctified us one little piece at a time, but the more we learn, the more we realize our own brokenness, and we are frustrated by how much farther we have to go. Won’t one day we wake up and just be good? Why do we have to continue to fail? We are frustrated and exhausted by our own humanness, and yet we continue to pour our hearts into the belief that, even if its inch by inch, we will be better, God will work in us. What would you call that other than hope?
Hope, aware of all that is working against you, and of all the times you’ve failed and hope in the future of a child that is screaming and rubbing food on the walls, is a lot more poignant than a hope that doesn’t yet know how hard its going to be yet. Hope is one of the theological virtues, right in between faith and love in 1 Corinthians 13. Hope when everything is going well is no virtue, hope “when you have no stomach for it,” has an incredible power.
I know a very young expectant mother here, who’s very pregnancy is evidence of just how dark this world can be. She’ll have the baby any day now. All of the new children of my friends and family members bring hope – but this baby will bring hope of completely different kind, a hope that is a virtue, that is exhausted and battle-worn, and which looks at life and says “yes, I will take you, and I will love you, again.”
I searched through some scriptures on home to find something quotable, and I stumbled across a truth with just as much power as any tattoo-worthy verse. With the exception of Psalms, the book in the Bible that mentions hope the most is Job. The prophet who lost his family, his living, everything, is the prophet who has the most to say about hope. I think that’s scriptural validation enough.
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