God, Tree Climbing, and Infinite Surprise
"It pleased him to imagine God as someone like his mother, someone beleaguered by too many responsibilities, too dog-tired to monitor an energetic boy every minute of the day, but who, out of love and fear for his safety, checked in on him whenever she could. Was this so crazy? Surely God must have other projects besides Man [sic], just as his parents had responsibilities other than raising their children? Miles liked the idea of a God who, when He at last had the opportunity to return His attention to His children, might shake His head with wonder and mutter, "Jesus. Look what they're up to now." A distractible God, perhaps, one who'd be startled to discover so many of His children way up in trees since the last time He looked. A God whose hand would go rushing to His mouth in fear in that instant of recognition that—good God!—that kid's going to hurt himself. A God who could be surprised by unanticipated pride—glory be, that boy is a climber!" (Richard Russo, Empire Falls).
I love this quote from Richard Russo. God as a distracted mother, responsible for so much, but ferociously attached to her children. I like that. Being married to a mother ferociously attached to her children, but responsible for much else, I'm partial to this image of God. Notwithstanding the questions of orthodoxy (the impassibility and omnicompetence of God), I still like to think of God as much less overbearing than we're traditionally given to believe. I know of and agree with Karl Barth's rather imperious sounding dictum that "God is not human being said in a loud voice!" Still, a surprised and delighted God is a comforting notion in a world filled with pinch-faced people certain that God's highest vocation revolves around abstemiously policing human indiscretion and rooting out joy from among possible human achievement. Surely God must find some joy in human achievement, even (perhaps especially) at its most outrageously indiscreet.
If God had a hand in creating us, God must take some delight in us--and not just when we're wearing our Sunday best either. Human life, as messy and venal as it sometime seems, offers up moments of true grace and rapture—often squarely deposited in the midst of the messiness and venality, rather than despite it. My delight in my children, when I can subdue my own pinch-faced abstemiousness long enough, often comes in realizing the amazing extent to which they are infinitely capable and amazingly clever at goofing up. How, for example, sophisticated electronic gadgets when in my children's hands acquire the properties of divining rods, sniffing out water (toilets, the dog's water bowl, etc.) with alarming precision, is an object of true wonderment to me. Why should God be any less amazed at my own stunning penchant for dropping delicate stuff in the toilet?
The clear temptation that accompanies an image of God as slightly harried parent is that it lets me off the hook with respect to my messes--as if to say, I can do whatever I want because God's busy minding gravity. This would, of course, constitute a singularly self-serving picture of God as undiscerning and ceaselessly approving. But the positive thing this image of God offers, I think, is an opportunity to hold on a little less tightly to myself and to my own need to get everything exactly right--to view my own children, not so much as a project to be perfected but a gift to be enjoyed, to be wondered over, and shared with the rest of the world.
A God surprised by and unanticipatedly proud of tree climbers (and their parents)—that sounds like grace to me.