Practicing with Children

When Faced With Mystery

by Andrew Gale

I was driving home from a wonderful daddy-daughter morning with Eleanor this past summer. It was hot. Very hot. And humid. A terrible combination, if you ask me. The noonday sun made you wonder if someone was trying to broil you for dinner.

As we drove home we saw storm clouds ahead, ones that cut the sky into shards of light through darkness. At one point, the feeling in the van shifted as the intense spotlight of the sun’s rays were momentarily obstructed. “It got dark in here, didn’t it?” Within a minute we were back in the sun again and Eleanor perked up at the realization that the sun had returned. She started looking outside and around the van hurriedly. “Where is the sun?”

When we exited the house that morning, Eleanor had felt the sun on her back. She’d turned toward it, squinting her eyes, and said, “Look, the sun! Praise the Lord!” It hung just above our house.

But now the sun was above the van, making finding it a little trickier.

“Well, right now the sun is directly above us. So you won’t be able to see it.” She sat there, contented with the response, but obviously disappointed. I tried to appease her, “Sometimes we can’t see things, but we can still feel them. We can tell when they are there. Like when the van got brighter inside and the sun lit the road ahead of us. Even though you can’t see the sun, you were able to tell when it was on us.”

This seemed like an ideal moment for theological reflection. Though for this three-year-old, daddy’s theological reflections must be given in small doses. I started to talk about God and how, though we may not be able to see God physically, we can often sense God. We can feel God at work around us. God is present, even if we can’t point out exactly where God is.

I felt gratified by my pastor-like, story-filled illustration, …though she seemed less than impressed. At three years old, she doesn’t think abstractly. She doesn’t need to have something proven to believe that it’s real. She felt the sun. She knew it was there. She simply couldn’t figure out where it was.

Though it may seem odd to share a story from a blisteringly hot day this past summer, especially as each day now seems to be trying to prove it can be colder than the last, there is beautiful imagery in the faith of a child. It seems so… uncomplicated. Advent is a season that complicates things, at least for me. Advent is a time surrounded by mystery. We meet a young girl, a virgin, who becomes pregnant. Then, after the child’s birth, a choir of angels perform for a sullied bunch of shepherds in a field. The angel then tells them to go on a door-to-door hunt for the baby with the only description being his baby blanket and bed (which, spoiler, was a horse’s trough). If that isn’t enough, we have magi (these are significant people, mind you, the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the previous company) who pack up their things and embark on an astrological journey to find Jesus, bringing him outrageously generous gifts for his birthday. It is so absolutely fantastical that it’s easier to avoid the mystery altogether, which we do by experiencing advent as a repetition of previous years. And this is our first option when things get messy: Avoid. Act like the story is somehow normal.

I am not sure the contrary response is helpful either. Just like I did with Eleanor, if I don’t avoid I often attempt to explain, in as exact terms as I could for a three year-old, exactly what was happening.

I think sometimes we give ourselves over to explaining things that are best expressed simply as mystery.

God’s willingness to come among us is incomprehensible to me. But as a father, I sense this need to move toward one or the other option when faced with mystery. For me, it often comes as an urge to make sure I pass down every last nugget of knowledge I have stored up – knowledge that often leads me no where closer to explanation. But I also don’t want to simply instruct my child to believe willy-nilly, as if the mystery we find in the bible is not meant to be questioned or thought about critically. Are these my only options?

Maybe it would be advantageous to find the balance. Sometimes the gift of parenting is being still long enough for your child to experience the mystery. To allow them time to bask in the wonder. To say, “I don’t know” enough times for them to wrestle with the complexity of things. In this case, to be willing to sit in anticipation for the one who will wildly shape the course of history but emerges unexpectedly as a helpless baby.

As the season of advent progresses and I am once again reminded of the beauty of God With Us, I will try hard not to complicate or over simplify the moment, but simply remember the words of my daughter: “Look, the sun! Praise the Lord!”

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Andrew and his wife Autumn and daughter Eleanor reside in Anderson, Indiana where Andrew works for Global Strategy, a Christian global nonprofit organization. He is an ordained minister in the Church of God (Anderson, IN) and when he is not hanging out with his family he can be spotted clutching a cup of coffee while working on his doctoral dissertation.

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