Imagining God as a Frazzled Parent
For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.
Isaiah 42:14, NRSV
I'm currently reading Wearing God by Lauren Winner. She examines some of the lesser known or talked about images for God found in scripture; passages that depict God as clothing, wine, and other things that are not Father/Shepherd/Light. Yesterday I read about God as a woman in labor in which Winner cited the above passage. She wrote about God being in intense labor pain as God gives birth to new creation. She wrote about the groaning in childbirth and the importance of breathing. She wrote about the importance of midwives and spouses in the birthing process and the role we might play in the labor of new creation.
After reading the chapter, I found the picture to be quite beautiful and profound even as it made God seem more vulnerable. I think we typically shy away from images of a vulnerable God (Christ on the cross being the exception). We take these earthbound images of God and try to sanitize them; strip them of all their earthiness. We like God to be powerful. Unflinching. Invincible.
For me, Winner's narrative of a vulnerable God reframed a more popular image of the Almighty: that of a father or a parent (I admit that highlighting a more common metaphor runs a bit counter to the book's purpose of shedding light on the lesser known). When I was a kid, I always viewed my parents as somewhat superhero-like. They could not be fazed. They had no doubts. But in my years as a father, I have realized that intense vulnerability is inherent in parenthood. A particular outing last night blared that reality to me.
EA had a meeting and so I opted to take our boys to Chick-fil-A: home of the chicken sandwich and, more importantly, a safe indoor playground. We were going to get dinner, I was going to let the boys wear themselves out playing, and then go home for bed. It was a great plan and one that has worked previously.
But this time the poop hit the fan quickly. When we got to our table, one boy sat in a seat in which the other wanted to sit also. There was no calling of dibs or anything like that. He was just angry that his brother was sitting in this particular seat and he wanted it. He proceeded to scream, try to steal the seat, and plow through me to forcibly remove his brother. When none of that worked, he sulked and whined.
Somehow we were able to pull ourselves out of that tailspin a little after we got our food and I thought we were going to be fine. After we ate, it was playground time. Before they go in, we have a pep talk.
"When Dad says it's time to go, we go. Okay? No crying, complaining, or yelling."
"Or running away," the oldest adds.
"Or running away. So when I say it's time to go, what do we do?"
"Do we complain, cry, or run away?"
"Are you going to do that?"
"Okay. Have fun!"
You know where this is going. When I say it is time for us to leave, only one comes down. The other—the oldest, the one who contributed that we don't run away—retreats further into bowels of the playground.
"I don't waaaaaaaaant to goooooooo!"
"But you said you'd cooperate!"
"I changed my mind."
I had to climb up into the playground to retrieve my son and then lugged him, his monkey, his shoes, the other's duck, and a bag to the car as his younger brother dutifully tagged behind me.
It was maddening. I wanted to punch a wall. After struggling to get the boys in the car, I stewed on the drive home. And I couldn't help but blame myself. I think every parent has moments like this: I'm a failure. I am failing my kid. I'm not doing something right and that's why they're acting this way. This is not necessarily true. Our kids act of their own agency. You can do the right things and your kid might still disobey. Your head knows this but you can't keep that feeling from swelling up on you.
After the dust settled, I found myself wondering whether God ever feels like a failure as a parent. Not that God is a failure, but does God ever just get swarmed with that helpless exasperation because of how screwed up we the kids are? As a parent, it can sometimes seem like you try and try and nothing works. I ran through the CFA debacle in my head. I threw everything I had at the situation, every approach. I was loving and understanding. I tried to appeal to reason. I sternly warned of consequences of disobedience. I attempted to explain how the disobedience hurt me. It felt like I had been on a particularly vicious roller coaster.
Suddenly, the Old Testament—the part of the Bible with which I struggle mightily—made a hair more sense. The way in which God was sometimes loving and compassionate and other times seemed mean and scary. The way in which God sometimes seemed way too lenient in forgiving and way too harsh in punishment. Realizing this was filtered through the scripture writers, I could see God as a frazzled parent throwing everything at a situation in which the kids would just not listen.
That image can be a little unsettling. We like to think of God as a know-it-all father; kind of like Ward Cleaver or some other dad on a 50s sitcom. Calm. Firm. In control. We don't like to think of God being absolutely wrecked and at wit's end by our disobedience. We probably don't like this picture because it shows us how awful we can be to God.
Yet I think we should hold on to this image. No picture of God is perfect or complete. Yet this image of God in the chaotic throes of parenthood conveys the passionate love God has for us. You wouldn't say Ward Cleaver was passionate; he was in control but aloof.
But this is the God who fights off feelings of failure and throws everything possible at the situation to help God's children. This is the God who will climb up into the playground to bring us home. This is the God that will get hands dirty, cry over us, yell at us, and tightly wraps arms around us with love. It is a more vulnerable and chaotic type of parenthood than I typically associate with God, but I'm starting to think it is the one that I see in scripture.