That time God sounded like Groucho Marx

There is a store downtown that we’ve asked our kids not to shop at. The window is full of a hodgepodge of goods: Sun catchers and hour glasses, crystals and oils, whimsical socks, tarot cards, and all kinds of items the modern shopper has classified as “metaphysical,” which includes anything having to do with Wiccans, native Americans, buddhists, or I guess mermaids.

When I saw a ouija board for sale, I told the kids it was probably just a stupid place, but it would be smarter just stay out, because we don’t need to even get close to that kind of nonsense.

It’s a fine line, because you don’t want to pique kids’ natural interest in the forbidden by making occult things sound tantalizingly fascinating, but you also don’t want them to make contact with anything dangerous. We draw a pretty bright line with ouija boards. Some things are designed to make something spiritual happen, whether the participants believes in them or not, and the purpose of a ouija board is to open a spiritual door.

We have found that the most effective strategy is to teach the kids to roll their eyes at the overwhelming lameness of the kind of store that blathers on about “magick” and darkness and light, and sells cheap sparkly jewelry from China and tries to pass that off as mystical. Snark is a powerful tool. 

But recently one of my younger daughters came to me pretty steamed, because in among the singing bowls and skeleton goblets and fairy wind chimes, they were selling a statue of Mary.

“I don’t want to buy it and give those people money, but I want to get Mary out of there!” she said.

I reassured her that it wasn’t hurting Mary at all to have her statue in such a foolish clutter. It’s just a statue, which isn’t her; and anyway, you really can’t hurt Mary. She’s too strong. But I understood the indignation she was feeling. You don’t put our mother in with all that trivia, like she’s just another pretty good luck charm that might send positive vibes your way.

I told her that you never know; someone might choose the Mary statue and bring it home because it was pretty, and it might lead them down a path of finding out more about who this lady is, and it might bring them into the arms of the Church where Jesus is. That is what Mary tends to do: She leads people to Jesus. You never know.

My daughter was fairly skeptical. She is ten, and like many kids her age, quite a traditionalist. She likes things to stay in their lane. So I told her that the Holy Spirit definitely uses the normal channels to reach people, but also speaks to people through whatever is around them. A statue, a song, a movie, anything.

She was intrigued, so I told her about a thought process that went through my head one time, and just about knocked me off my feet.

I had just finished an essay about the faith, and I liked it pretty well, but as often happens, I immediately started fretting that people wouldn’t understand what I was trying to say. Then I started fretting that maybe I wasn’t really clear, myself, on what I was trying to say. Then I thought maybe, in that uncertainty, I was missing out on something that God was trying to say to me.

And then, clear as a bell, I heard in my mind the voice of Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup saying, Can’t you see that I’m trying to tell you I love you?

And that . . . was God. Speaking in the voice of Groucho Marx, talking to Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Teasdale, whom he assuredly did not really love, but whom he was trying to woo, in between insults, because he wanted her money. But the point was, the line made me laugh, and it came to me out of nowhere because that is what God is trying to tell me, all the time. He loves me.

He does know me, and he knows what’s in my head, and what will make me laugh. I don’t know if I’m conveying just how sweet and perfect and strangely intimate this moment was, but there is no earthly reason this line should have popped into my head at all, but it perfectly put to rest all the fretting and questioning that I was chasing myself around with. And you would have to know me really well to know what a good line this is to use on me. 

It was a blessed reassurance that I had done my best with my work and that God would do with it what he wanted to, and I could relax, because he loves me.  All was well.

It wasn’t just a random thing, just a personal quirky story. It tells me that doors are always opening.  We can forget this, sometimes, as we fret over the many threats and tantalizing temptations our kids are subject to. Sometimes, as parents, we can focus overly on the many ways that evil can creep in and reach our children.

The enticements are cramming all the storefronts, reaching out and trying to get our kids to partake. The dangers are real. But so is Christ. So is Mary; so is the Holy Spirit. So much realer than evil! So much more authentic. So much more gratifying. So much more intimate.

Jesus is always looking for ways to reach us and to reach our children. He is so humble, he doesn’t wait for a formal, dignified, church-sanctioned invitation to swoop in and make a proposition. Just a little crack in the door will do. A joke, a song, a statue in a window. A line from a movie from short little Jew with wiggling eyebrows.

Can’t you see he’s trying to say he loves you? Don’t be afraid to see it, because it’s everywhere. Be watchful, be listening, but don’t be afraid.

A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on July 7, 2022.

Image is still from Duck Soup:

 

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)

Undeserving, unremarkable, unreliable, beloved

My social media feed is well-stocked with babies. I have my favorites: That one little girl with the amazing dark eyes and bounteous curly hair; that extra squashy toddler whose face is so ridiculously expressive; and of course my own children, who are sweeter, cuter, and more delicious to look upon then all the rest of humankind put together and then tripled.

What I really enjoy, though, is boring pictures of boring kids. I like seeing that one kid (or forty-six kids, for all I know. I can’t tell them apart, because there’s nothing remarkable about them) with the light brown hair and the kind of dull expression, doing things like sitting at a table with a plastic plate of eggs, propped up in a swing his eyes half-closed, or maybe holding a toy truck in one hand and another toy truck in the other hand.

“Little man really loves his eggs!” the proud mom will gush, adding a couple of smiling emoticons with hearts instead of eyeballs. “Connor is crazy about playing trucks! Love him so much [heart heart heart heart heart].”

These really are some of my favorite posts, because it makes me happy to remember that there are so many ordinary, unremarkable children in the world who are cherished, doted on, lavished with affection just because they exist. They are not adored because they learned to speak at an early age or because they smell better than most children. They haven’t earned their parents’ love because they are especially clever or easy to care for, or because they show early promise for a lucrative career in show business. They are beloved simply because they are children; and, when all is well, parents love their own children better than they love anyone else. They are beloved simply because they exist.

In an increasingly utilitarian society, where we are told to value people who are useful and kill people who are not, it is refreshing down to my very soul to see so much love lavished on such ordinary children.

I thought of this during the Mass of the Epiphany, as our pastor reminded us that the magi prostrated themselves before the infant Jesus. The typical nativity scene shows the wise men visiting the Holy Family in the stable where Jesus was born. More likely, Joseph had found more comfortable housing by the time the magi turned up; but either way, whether it was the foul, smelly hay of the stable or the undoubtedly rough and rustic floor of the house of a poor carpenter, those stately, high-born international guests, who had been welcomed by Herod himself, prostrated themselves on it – abased themselves – lay themselves down in utter, abandoned adoration before the child who was anything but ordinary.

“And then,” our pastor reminded us, “Jesus did the same for us.” First by making Himself an infinitesimal one-celled human in one of Mary’s fallopian tubes; by being born into that dark, smelly stable (and the dark, smelly, finite, fallen world of humans in general); by allowing Himself to be publicly executed like a criminal; by allowing Himself to be present in that flat, white, unremarkable consecrated host.

Odd for the magi to know enough to prostrate themselves, in their jewels and flowing robes, before the seemingly unremarkable but truly extraordinary son of Mary; odder still, odd times a billion, for that Son to prostrate Himself for us, who are truly unremarkable.

Why? Why would He do this?

Because, to Him, every last one of us is that child who is unlike any other child. Each one of us is cherished like the “little man” who is adorable just because he enjoys eating eggs, or sweet beyond compare just because he has learned to blow kisses, like billions of other babies. To Christ, each of us is that special one, that cherished child, that singularly beloved one who makes his parent’s heart swell with affection.

He dotes on us just because we exist.  We are not beloved of God because we learn quickly or because we perform better than, for instance, the angels. We haven’t earned our Father’s love because we are especially clever or easy to care for, or because we can ever possibly do anything for God.

We are beloved simply because we are His children; and God loves each of His children as if they were His only child. He would have gone to these mind-bogglingly extraordinary lengths for any single one of us, even if we were the only person in the universe.

If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself this: Does the alternative make any more sense? Does it seem more true to say, “God would have been willing to undergo the immense weirdness of the Incarnation, and the profound suffering and agony of the crucifixion, but only if it was for a whole lot of people. He would only do it for billions of people. Not millions. Or maybe he would do it for millions, but not thousands, or hundreds. Well, maybe he would do it for a hundred people, but never for just one.

“Never just for me.”

Oh, really? Let me tell you, it doesn’t make any sense for Him to do it in the first place, not even for quadrillions or quintillions of unremarkable human souls. There would be no reason for God to go that trouble, no matter how many souls there were. So long as we’re willing to believe He’s going to behave so strangely, and subsume His infinite glory into some “itty bitty living space” for a world full of souls, then why not go whole hog and make no sense at all? Why not go ahead and do that for one, single, stinking person, like me?

It doesn’t make sense. It’s not efficient. It’s not rational. The only reason you’d do it is for love; and love only means anything if it’s between two people.

And who are those two people? Him and me. And Him and you, and you, and you, and every single last stinking, undeserving, inadequate, unreliable, unremarkable one of us, one by one, with His whole heart. I am ordinary, and so are you. I am unremarkable, and so are you. We like scrambled eggs, and we enjoy playing with our trucks. There is nothing special about us – nothing, except that we are beloved of God, individually, distinctly, intentionally, profoundly.

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This essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly in 2017

You can get a dolphin picture anywhere

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.

Read the rest of my latest in my new marriage and family life column for Parable Magazine.

Image by HAMID ELBAZ via Pexels (Creative Commons)

Undeserving, unremarkable, unreliable, and beloved

Odd for the magi to know enough to prostrate themselves, in their jewels and flowing robes, before the seemingly unremarkable but truly extraordinary son of Mary; odder still, odd times a billion, for that Son to prostrate Himself for us, who are truly unremarkable.

Why? Why would He do this?

Because, to Him, every last one of us is that child who is unlike any other child. Each one of us is cherished like the “little man” who is adorable just because he enjoys eating eggs, or sweet beyond compare just because he has learned to blow kisses, like billions of other babies. To Christ, each of us is that special one, that cherished child, that singularly beloved one who makes his parent’s heart swell with affection.

Read the rest of my latest post at The Catholic Weekly.

Image: detail of photo by Andreĭ Osipovich Karelin, Public Domain