Saturday, August 25, 2012


Lego's wonderfully articulated Shelob.
How did she become "evil?"

A little child shall lead them…

I find, alas, that I am in substantial agreement with the old saw, “There’s nothing more boring than other people’s grandchildren or vacation photos.” (There are exceptions, of course. Your grandchildren, for example, are certainly not boring. But I draw the line at your vacation pics.) So I will be neither offended nor surprised if – when I tell you that this essay is inspired by my grandson, Sam – you click off immediately as you stifle a yawn. But let me make this attempt to stay your hand: In what follows, I write not about how cute and clever Sam is, but about how I am both moved and startled by the thinking, the philosophy, the ethics, and – yes – the theology of a four-and-three-quarter year-old. Any four-and-three-quarter year-old. Including, I am glad to acknowledge, your grandkid.

Years ago I was in the middle of, “The body of Christ given for…” when another four-year-old, at the communion rail with his mother, interrupted me with a hoarse stage whisper, “Psst, Pastor Dick… when was God born and who were God’s mom and dad?” At one level, of course, this is standard, precious, out-of-the-mouths-of-babes fare, but at a deeper level (what I mean by being “startled”), these guileless questions and pronouncements elicit from me not an indulgent grandfatherly chuckle but an open-mouthed, pondering silence. Now, as a sixty-five-year-old theologian, I have an approach to this four-year-old’s question (I’ve even blogged about it for grown-ups, and will again), but I don’t exactly have an answer. (By golly, when was God born…?) It is a question asked by Aristotle and Aquinas, it is “What was there before there was something?” It is a question explored by Jim Holt in his new book, Why Does the World Exist? It is a question misunderstood by Richard Dawkins, and it is a question that drives philosophers, scientists, and theologians together as they stare into the light and into the darkness. It is the question of a four-year-old. Startling.

It seems that after four years of college, four years of seminary, countless hours of reading and advanced study, and thirty-five years in the ministry, I might have had a readier answer than I did to Sam’s question, from his child’s safety seat in the back of the car, “Grandpa, what does God do?” (Sam’s emphasis was on “do.”) My thoughtful formulation of an answer took too long. As I started to say, “Well…,” Sam was on to, “Look, there’s a loader!”

Sam is too young to have read The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or to have seen Star Wars, but he knows the essential stories because his dad is a Star Wars nerd and his YA literature-specialist Auntie Anna is a Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter geek, as is his pastor-friend Mike. They are his resources for learning the plots and the characters. But mostly he knows these stories because of Legos. Not only does Lego make intricate, multi-piece plastic kits of such esoterica as Gandalf’s fireworks cart, Harry Potter’s potions classroom, and Anakin’s pod racer; it also produces on-line video versions of the stories. (These sometimes veer too close to parody for an old Tolkien fan like grandpa: Ronald McDonald as part of the Fellowship of the Ring sneaking into Mordor?!)

Sam mostly tells me about these stories. He tells me which starfighter is piloted by Luke Skywalker, he tells me which Lego figure is Hermione, he tells me how Samwise picks up Frodo’s sword to fight off Shelob. But he also asks me. And what he mostly asks are questions like, “Why are the Orcs bad?” “What made Voldemort be bad?” “Did Smaug have a mom and dad?” I talk about how people sometimes turn to a bad life because they were mistreated by grownups or they didn’t grow up knowing they were loved, which is why your mommy and daddy love you so much…; I try to squeeze in an answer before Sam is distracted by the passing garbage truck. And then there’s, “Grandpa, what made Shelob evil?” Ah, “evil,” there it is. Good and Evil. I think I have a systematic theology textbook here somewhere…

Sam likes his children’s songs CDs. He said to me, “Grandpa, one of my songs says that Pharaoh’s army got drownded” (the old spiritual). “Yes,” I say, “there was that time when the water rose up and drowned the whole army….” “No, Grandpa,” says Sam, “God made the waters rise up and drown them.”  He doesn’t say it, but I feel the implied follow-up, “Tell me about a God who would drown a whole army, Grandpa.”

I am reminded of the description of the Bible as “not so much a great answer book as a great question book.” The Bible’s questions are our questions. Of course I have answers, or approaches to answers, for these questions, based on the classic Lutheran combination of faith and reason. And I look forward not so much to answering all of Sam’s questions in black and white as to continuing the conversation with him as he grows. And of course I’ll tell him I have questions of my own. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

It would be good if more adults could live with the uncertainty of the Apostle Paul (“Now we see as through a clouded glass...” why should we think we’ll know it all?) And in Lutheran theology, all questions (and doubts) take us to Jesus and the cross. Sam loved learning about Jesus at Vacation Bible School this summer. He talked about Jesus so much that at one point I decided to seize on a teachable moment. In response to a little misbehavior, I said, “You know, Sam, Jesus teaches us that we should treat other people the way we would like to be treated.” Sam glared rather harshly at me and said, “Jesus teaches us nothing. He’s dead on the cross.” I was reduced to that open-mouthed silence for a few seconds. Then I realized that Sam’s response was a combination of the oppositional stage he is in (Sam, time to take a bath. “No, Grandpa, time for you to take a bath!”) and the idea he came away with from Bible School: Jesus is dead on the cross right now; at Easter he will come back alive.

My grandson the religious skeptic. May God grant us many years of conversation. Because I realize that not only are the Bible’s questions my questions. Sam’s questions are my questions.