You can get a dolphin picture anywhere

Back in the days where cameras used film and you only had so many shots to take, my father took us kids to the aquarium.

We had a wonderful time, but when we got our photos developed, I was disappointed to see nothing but . . . us. “Why didn’t you take any pictures of the dolphin show?” I asked my father.

“I can get a dolphin picture anywhere,” he said. And he was right. The gift shop was full of sharp, professional photos of the animals. But there were no postcards with our faces on them — no tourist brochures featuring me, specifically, gasping with amazement, or my little brother, in particular, laughing in delight as he caught the dolphin’s spray.

And that was what my father wanted: Our happiness, our wonder and delight as we watched the dolphins leaping around and splashing us. That was why he had brought us there: So we would be delighted. And there was something in it for him, too. He enjoyed watching us enjoy ourselves. The one thing better than being happy yourself is seeing the joy of someone you love.

I think of this day when fretting over God’s sometimes baffling inefficiency. God is no businessman. If He wanted to maximize the number of souls saved, there are thousands of ways He could have made it happen: By taking away free will, for instance. By making virtuous behavior irresistible. By writing letters on the wall with a giant hand, rather than hinting with parables, whispering with grace, scattering clues of goodness, truth, and beauty all throughout the natural world.

He could have been more direct. He could have skipped all the strangeness, sorrow, and pain we feel as we blunder our way through life, toward Him. He could have been more efficient.

Instead, he chose the promise of delight. Instead, He gives us free will. He gives us the time and ability and desire to decide what to do with it. He wants us to come to Him not because we’re forced to, but because we have discovered Him, because we have found our own way toward Him, because we have realized organically, from the inside out, that we need and want what only He has to offer. He wants us to delight in Him. Not to find ourselves deposited briskly at the porch of Heaven, but to let ourselves be found.

It’s not a business transaction. It’s love. And there’s something in it for Him, too. He delights in our delight when we find Him.

Do we realize this? We may find ourselves miserably struggling to appease God, or anxiously, resentfully trying to avoid offending Him. But do we understand how He delights in us? He enjoys us. He likes us, and that is the only reason He made us in the first place. God is not deficient in anything. He didn’t need to make us at all. 

But He did. He did, because it’s not about the perfect dolphin picture. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about Him and us, us in particular. It’s about love and delight.

So there are two lessons here. One is more practical and immediate, and is mainly for parents:

Just as God loves us intensely now, for who we are, then we, as parents, must keep on reminding ourselves to enjoy, appreciate, and respond to our children now, as they are.

It is terribly easy to get distracted from this purpose — to pursue the “perfect dolphin picture,” and to forget why we came in the first place.  When we’re planning birthday parties, are we trying to please our actual kid, or to impress a thousand anonymous moms on Pinterest? When our older kids are choosing a college, do we nudge them toward the one that will help them be what they were meant to be, or toward the one with the name that strokes our own egos? When our children declare themselves for who they are — through their interests, their dress, their strengths, their humor, their voices, their hearts — do we remember to stop and delight in them, as specific, irreplaceable children? 

Do we let them know we see and delight in them as they are, for who they are? Or do we hustle past their actual selves in favor of a generic family photo op?  God gave us specific children for a reason. One of our primary jobs as parents is to identify and encourage what is good in them — not what we wish they were like, but what is good in them right now. Our job is to find something delightful in them. 

The second lesson is more universal, and it is this:

This intensely personal, specific love and delight that parents should cultivate toward their kids is the same personal, specific love and delight that God feels toward us. Toward you. Remember this.

The Father made you, specifically, on purpose. Christ came to save you, individually, intentionally. He delights in you for who you are. He wants to forgive your sins “more quickly than a mother would snatch her child out of the fire” (St. John Vianney). He wants to save you because He knows you, and delights in you. 

God is no businessman. He is bogglingly inefficient. Christ said to St. Teresa of Avila, “I would create the world again just to hear you say you love me.”  Oh, it’s personal. He could get a perfect dolphin picture anywhere. But he’d rather have you.


This essay was originally published in Parable magazine in 2018. Republished with permission. 

Image by HAMID ELBAZ via Pexels (Creative Commons)

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5 thoughts on “You can get a dolphin picture anywhere”

  1. Fascinating article.

    However, one of the things you write does sound awfully like one of those “hard truths”, to me – and mind-you I am *not* one of those who cannot get rid of a somewhat semiconscious, or often enough conscious, satisfaction in talking about hard truths, sometimes to the point of considering all truths hard. As for me, I can sympathise with where they come from (“someone has to insist on B when all the world insists on A”), but I think the thing to do about hard-truths is accepting them if they really are true, not delighting in them. In any case, one thing you write sounds like one.

    My take on it would be that maybe it isn’t a truth.

    The thing is, of course: “If [God] wanted to maximize the number of souls saved, there are thousands of ways He could have made it happen: […] He could have skipped all the strangeness, sorrow, and pain we feel as we blunder our way through life, toward Him. He could have been more efficient.”

    So, as I take you, it is that God chose *not* to maximize the number of souls saved, because He’d rather delight in our finding him.

    Which would be all very nice, of course, and a great realization of “God does not actually need us but He *does* love us more than we can say”… until we get to the question what happens to those who are *not* saved. Well, they are thrown into the deep pit where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.

    It goes without saying that those who really really would not have it otherwise and leave God no choice (as it were) do deserve such a punishment (and it’s entirely logical if we look into the world to assume that some such people there are, confirming what the Scriptures tell us). But you make it almost sound it as if God sat the standard somewhat higher than even He had to (not being able to contradict Himself), or letting us run more free than he could have in the full knowledge that this will make us find the portal of Heaven with less probability.

    Now I somehow can’t bring myself to believe *that*; would He who sacrificed His own Son in order to get salvation for all men sacrifice the effectiveness of this same salvation for some of them, with getting “no more”, as it were, than an additional nice breeze of the wind of freedom for the more fortunate ones? (That is *something*, granted; but *enough*?)

    Hence my assumption that while God might, of course, be as inefficient as He likes about, saying, making Christians or Catholics or law-abiding citizens etc., or about happiness on this earth (considering that enduring without it will count as merit in the world to come), or even about sins paid for in Purgatory (which will be, as is this life, an instant compared to the eternity of Heaven), you name it,… but He *is* efficient about making people ultimately effective receivers of His redemption – though (that much is indeed obvious) in mysterious ways (if so).

    I can’t prove it from the sources of faith; but I can say that if it weren’t the case, this really *would* be a hard truth.

  2. I love this post, it’s so deep and insightful and I liked how you shared that past memory and tied it into your ultimate message.
    This essay is somehow better than my priest’s Sunday homilies, have you ever thought about being a professional homily writer and selling to lackluster priests?
    Jokes aside, I really felt that part about enjoying your child for the unique individual they are, not as a mother(which I am not) but as a daughter, as I can tell you all about the pressures I’ve felt from my parents to live up to some ideal.
    Btw could you tell me where that St Teresa of Avila Jesus quote came from? Was it Interior Castles?

  3. Fascinating to read this just MINUTES after:

    “Why, Despite Everything, You Should Have Kids (if You Want Them)
    In a time of Covid-19, climate change and catastrophe, having a baby is an act of radical hope.” By Tom Whyman

    a secular take somewhat askew to that of the orthodox Christian (with a reference to the Cathars….)

  4. He loves us so much that he wants us to share in the immense, divine plan of intervention against sin and death. He makes it so we all fit together like a puzzle, an orchestra, a tapestry, a single body…

    My favorite almost heresy which might very well be the complete truth, is that every single human being is SO entirely necessary that the entire body can’t function without them. When we can look upon that person, really SEE them as so utterly sacred that abuse against their sacred being is like a blasphemy, the very thought of a civil rights movement of any kind will make us blush in shame.

    I think God keeps a very bright light burning on his warm and welcoming porch, but he keeps checking to make sure that everybody is accounted for before the celebration could possibly begin. What parent could celebrate if one of their children was unaccounted for?

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