Chapter 12: On Our Side
I’ve found that part of parenting is making a huge deal out of seemingly insignificant events in the lives of our children. We’ve all had the painful experience of having to listen to parents ramble on about their little geniuses or insist on showing you their little brat’s macaroni art; a parent’s desire to talk about their kids is always 1,000 times greater than everyone else’s desire to hear about those kids. Sometimes I’m aware enough to notice people’s eyes glazing over as I share all about Ellie’s latest adventures or Isaac’s most recent bowel movement, but usually I’m oblivious. Reading the last few sentences, I’m realizing that the same could be said about this entire book, but since you’ve already made it this far, I might as well keep going.
Last year we were visiting an aquarium in Spain, and all three kids were running around in the children’s play area. I’ve become slightly less anxious about my kids’ safety in public play places, but I was still constantly monitoring the scene to make sure all three were doing well. Within a few minutes in the play area, Ellie had successfully traversed the entire structure and was running around rolling her “r’s” convinced that she could now speak fluent Spanish. Isaac was content to spend the time laying down in one of those plastic ball pits, trying to eat each ball in the hopes that at least one of them would turn out to be something other than a collection of new and exciting communicable diseases.
Francis was focused on the incline that he saw older kids trying to climb. The padded surface was slippery, but there were a few pieces spread out for the kids to grab hold of or step onto as they attempted the hill. At first, I doubted that my son would make it to the top, given both the difficulty of the incline and the presence of ten other kids scrambling up and down. At age three, Francis’ initial excitement for adventure would typically fade quickly into frustration and giving up. It was tough to watch as he kept falling down the hill, over and over, either because he ran out of energy or because one of the other kids fell into him and knocked him back down. It must’ve taken about twenty minutes and fifty attempts, but Francis eventually made it to the top. I couldn’t believe it. I received a bunch of weird looks from the other parents there as I screamed and cheered to congratulate my now victorious son, but they had no idea what a big deal it was that Francis had actually persevered and succeeded despite repeated failures.
When we got back from that trip, I kept telling my friends about Francis and the climb. For the next several nights I went to bed replaying the scene in my mind; I was so proud of my son for what he overcame that day. Though it was a relatively insignificant accomplishment, one that he probably won’t remember years from now, I knew how much it mattered to Francis and I felt like my son had just won the Super Bowl.
I remember vividly the time when I knew for sure that my dad was proud of me. For my whole life I’ve been trying to make my family laugh, and for several years, my attempts earned laughs from my siblings and corrections from my parents. It’s not that they were trying to oppress me, my parents just weren’t cultured enough to appreciate fake foreign accents during our nightly decade of the rosary at the dinner table. For a project in a high school history class, we had to reenact a scene from the first World War. The rest of my group provided the required content while I took the important role of imitating a local TV anchorman. My impression of the reporter was a bit over the top, but I showed my parents the video expecting nothing more than the sighs of parents wondering why they were continuing to fund my education. The next morning my mom told me that my dad was cracking up laughing the night before as he told her how funny he thought my impression was. I always knew my dad loved me, but if he was always affirming me, how could I ever know when I had really made him proud? To know that I brought joy to my dad really made my day. Twenty years later I still look back on that moment as a turning point in our relationship, though I still think my rosary accents were among my best work.
Throughout my life, I’ve been told that God is watching over me. It was helpful to hear this as a little boy slightly afraid of the dark, but as I grew older I came to fear Him as some divine police officer or referee. If He was watching me, I was convinced that He was waiting to see me screw up so He could punish me and teach me a lesson. I don’t know if Francis was even aware that I was watching the entire time he tried to climb the hill. There’s no way he could know how much I was rooting for him, and how it took every ounce of self-control I had to not pull him up myself or push all the other kids out of the way so he could reach the top.
More than I was aware of the obstacles standing in Francis’ way, God the Father is aware of the struggles we face in life. He knows how many times we’ve fallen; He knows how hard it is to keep trying when we’re tempted to give up. And more than I was rooting for my son, the Father is pulling for me. He doesn’t stay close to catch us sinning or to catch us messing up. He simply wants to catch us, to lift us back up when we fall. God doesn’t watch us like some detached observer, He is overwhelmingly and unwaveringly for us. In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul describes the lengths and depths of God’s love for us. The Father loved us into being, He loved us so much that He sent His Son to redeem us, and He sent His Spirit to make us holy so that we could share His life. “What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us ?” (Romans 8:31) God the Father isn’t simply with us or near us, He is in love with us and actively working for our good.
He sees our efforts, He knows our weaknesses and our tendency to give up in frustration, and He celebrates even our smallest victories over sin and selfishness. This is a radically different notion than the idea of God the Father as some distant observer. The way I approach prayer changes when I’m aware that the Father I’m praying to is actually on my side. I shouldn’t hesitate to ask the Father for things, fearing that my requests are a burden or tiresome for Him. When I do fall into sin, I should be all the more motivated to seek reconciliation because I’ve turned away from the God who loves me deeply. Several years ago I traveled with two friends to visit Ireland. One afternoon we visited the Knock Shrine and there were a few priests hearing confessions as we arrived. I was eager to go to confession, both because I needed to go and because I knew I’d never see the priest again. It’s not that I had any really exciting sins to confess, nor that I have ever known a priest to betray the seal of the sacrament, it’s just that the anonymity of confessing in a foreign country was appealing to me at the time. When I heard the priest’s prayer at the beginning, I knew I had hit the jackpot.
The priest in the confessional that day sounded pretty old, which meant he’d probably have lots of wisdom to offer, and he had a great Irish accent, which meant that even his critiques of my life’s trajectory would sound charming. Kneeling behind the confessional screen, I launched into my list of sins. After I had gotten out only one or two sins, both of the priest’s hands reached around the screen. I hesitated for a second, unsure if maybe the sins I confessed had upset him so much that I was going to get slapped. His hands grabbed my hands and he just held on as I continued with the list of my guilt, shame, and regrets. As I continued confessing, I kept looking down at his hands holding mine, wondering if the next sin I said would be the one to make him let go. No matter what I shared, he never let go. When I had finished confessing my sins, the priest released my hands and prayed the words of absolution. It was a strange but beautiful experience of God the Father’s tenderness. As I acknowledged my brokenness and admitted my specific sins out loud, the priest never once pulled back or loosened his grip. Even at my worst, the Father isn’t second-guessing His commitment to me and He’ll never let go. My sins don’t scare Him, and my confessions don’t surprise Him. During Jesus’ public ministry, He frequently spent time with known sinners and outcasts. It was unfathomable to many that any decent man, let alone God’s Son, would make time for such unholy people. Yet Jesus made it clear that He came specifically to redeem and rescue the lost. When the Pharisees expressed concern about Jesus dining with sinners, He responded, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners” (Luke 5:31-32). In sending His Son into the world, the Father revealed the depths of His love for His wayward children. God is not cheering for us from a distance. He is actively engaged in the struggles of our lives and in the battles we face every day. His love for us is without conditions and His love is unhesitating. The Father’s love doesn’t change with the seasons or rise and fall with our stumbling on the path to holiness. At our worst, when we put the Son of God to death, He chose to remain with us.
In the face our rejection, our blasphemies, our taunts, and our torments, Jesus begged forgiveness for us with His dying breaths. Jesus was never a passive victim; He chose to endure suffering for our salvation every step of the way. This is how committed the Father is to rescuing His lost children. Jesus carried the cross not simply out of duty but with all the love of a groom heading down the aisle. Many crucifixes and images of Good Friday portray a detail from the Gospel of John showing Jesus with His head bowed as He died. Saint Bonaventure, a 13th Century Franciscan theologian, offers a powerful reflection on the significance of this detail. Bonaventure sees Jesus’ bowed head not as a sign of His death as much as a sign of His reverencing us. This is the scandal of the incarnation: God continues to lowers Himself to serve, love, and save people who continue to reject His love. To the woman caught in adultery, while she stands before the condemning crowd, Jesus lowers Himself to meet her where she is on the ground before He says one word (John 8). In the midst of her shame, her guilt, and her humiliation, Jesus bows to her and lowers Himself to elevate her dignity. Before we’ve done anything good, and even in the aftermath of our greatest sin, Jesus lowers Himself to be with us and He bows His head to us. In Jesus, we see beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Father is for us and not against us.
Christ on the Cross bows His head, waiting for you, that He may kiss you; He stretches out His arms, that He may embrace you; His hands are open, that He may enrich you; His body is spread out, that He may give Himself totally; His feet are nailed, that He may stay there; His side is open for you, that He may let you enter there. (Saint Bonaventure, Soliloquy on Four Spiritual Exercises)