By Clint Wilson
I am now at the stage in life where I have become familiar with the plot lines of many children’s stories, including The Giving Tree, The Monster at the End of This Book, The Berenstain Bears series, Good Night Moon, and, of course, Slaughterhouse Five (just kidding… Kurt Vonnegut will have to wait).
Two children’s books in particular have grabbed my attention. They put forth different but complementary visions of what it means to be a family.
The first book speaks of what we might call our “natural family”: Are You My Mother?, written by P.D. Eastman.
The story begins with a mother bird sitting on an egg in her nest. The egg jumps, and the mother realizes that her baby will soon be there and will need to eat, so she flies off in search of food. While she is gone, the baby bird hatches and finds himself alone. “Where is my mother?” he says. And that simple question generates a search that occupies the rest of the short book. Ultimately this is a story about identity.
Off the bird goes, looking for his mother, though he is not yet able to fly. Not knowing what his mother looks like, he can do no more than ask those he meets whether they by chance might be his mother. We meet possible but unlikely candidates in page after page — a kitten, hen, dog, cow, car, boat, plane. None of them responds affirmatively, and so the search for his true identity, for love, for his source of life continues.
At last, the baby bird sees a big steam shovel (it looks like a bird). Caught in its huge shovel, he is lifted high into the air and dropped back into the nest in the tree from which his search had begun. “Just then, the mother bird came back to the tree,” the book tells us. “Do you know who I am?” she asks. And, of course, he does. He knows that she is not a kitten, hen, dog, or any of the other possible candidates he has met along the way. Although he has not spent any time with this mother, this is the one naturally suited for him — all is well, with mother and baby bird safely nestled together once again in their nest.
The second children’s book speaks of what we might call our “adoptive family”: A Mother for Choco, by Keiko Kasza. In one sense, these stories are the same, but in reverse. Choco is a little yellow bird with striped feet, who lives alone. “He wishes he had a mother, but who could his mother be? One day he set off to find her.” He also is looking for his true identity, for love, for his source of life.
Choco meets a giraffe, but lacking wings, she says she cannot be his mother. He meets a penguin with wings but not round cheeks. He meets a walrus who is chubby, but has no striped feet. The search continues with an elephant, a turtle, a rabbit, “But no matter where Choco searched, he couldn’t find a mother who looked just like him,” the author tells us.
But then Choco sees Mrs. Bear picking apples. He’s sure she cannot be his mother; she looks nothing like him. He starts to cry, and Mrs. Bear comes running to comfort him. “As she listened to Choco’s story, she sighed, ‘Oh, dear. If you have a mommy, what would she do?’” She would hold me, Choco says. And Mrs. Bear hugs him tight. She would kiss me, Choco says. “‘Like this?’ asked Mrs. Bear. And she lifted Choco and give him a big kiss.” She would sing and dance with me, says Choco,” which Mrs. Bear then proceeds to do.
Mrs. Bear suggests that she could be Choco’s mother. But Choco protests, “You aren’t yellow. And you don’t have wings, or big round cheeks, or striped feet like me!” She takes him home anyway to have apple pie with the rest of her children. He must be nervous to meet her other children. What will they think of this outsider? we are meant to wonder.
They arrive home, and the other children who rush out to greet her turn out to be a hippopotamus, an alligator, and a pig. And after eating their fill of apple pie, Mrs. Bear gives all of her children a big bear hug, and Choco is happy his new mom looks just the way she does.
I do not know if my son is happy that I look just the way I do, but I do know the bond we have developed since I became his father is one of the most profound and beautiful relationships I have ever encountered, and indeed, it feels holy as much as it feels normal. And, of course, it is also hard. I have a friend who remarks in amazement at the ability of a child to inspire pure awe and rapturous joy in one moment while only seconds later lead you to boiling anger and interior thoughts of which you are ashamed. But toddlers are humanity writ large: glorious tragedy magnets and sinners who simply cannot function without the grace of cruciform relational investment.
And so we read, and read, and read some more. It is my most cherished time with him.
Reading such books together with my son has reminded me of a basic truth: reading is not just about the story, but about the relationship(s) forged through the experience. Relationship is at the heart of the story, mediated through it and deepened by the sacred act. Of course, this is true above all other stories for Holy Scripture, and the family history it tells of those who have been drowned in Christ.
Christians are those whose natural ties to family are good and holy — and we, like the baby bird from our first story, are born with an innate desire to find the source of our identity in relationship, and particularly, in family. But our identity, found and forged in our families, will never ultimately satisfy us unless we know who we are in Christ, as his beloved adopted children, as we are bound to people we would not otherwise know or choose. This is the scandalous claim of the Church united by the gospel.
We are all called within our families to live for Christ, who adopts us into his family, not by nature, but by grace. This opens to us an entirely new family, and is signified by the sacrament of baptism.
This teaching led to radical social reordering in the early Church, where women were included in leadership, where orphans and widows were embraced as treasures, and in the not-too-distant past this vision fueled a dreamer like Martin Luther King, Jr. to hope for a family where people are judged, not on the basis of the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.
Baptism particularly opens our eyes to God’s family, which is bigger than our own, precisely because it incorporates us into God’s family, which includes our own. In fact, in the Middle Ages, when children were to be baptized, the parents did not present the child for the sacrament. Instead, the godparents who were friends or members of the local church, and could not be family members, presented the child, because the church wanted to recognize the importance of a new kinship that was formed — a new family by grace — whereby the child could be loved and supported beyond the natural family unit through a community marked by grace; a community whose Father speaks over them words of hope:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. (Isa. 43:1-2)
And so when Jesus showed up on the scene, it makes sense that people got baptized, including himself. And those walking in his way came to know that what is true of Jesus is also true of them: “You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased,” says the Father of Jesus (Luke 3:22). The Father says this to each person, sinner and saint alike.
To be clear, baptism does not deny our natural family ties — it honors them, and elevates us and ours into a broader family (for more on this, see Gilbert Meilander’s Not by Nature, but by Grace). My own journey with adopting a son has positioned me to see the intersection of these realities to a deeper degree, even as my experience has only scratched the surface of the deeper mystery of God’s adoptive love.
My son was baptized at an Easter Vigil service, which was one of the most moving moments of my life. That morning I wrote a letter to him in an effort to capture a glimpse of God’s love for him, from which the following excerpt is taken:
The day you came into my life and our family is one of the happiest moments I can remember, and having you in our lives these last ten months has been an inexplicable joy. Besides my commitment to Jesus Christ and your mother, you are the best treasure I have received, and I know this conviction will only deepen as you grow into a boy and then a man. There is nothing you can do to change this love, and my love is only a fragment of the eternal love God has for you.
I am writing this in anticipation of your baptism, which will happen shortly and will stand as the most important moment of your journey — the day you were joined to Christ and washed in the love of God. This love, shown ultimately in the cross, is the most important reality you will come to know, for it is the center of every beating heart, every breath, every quark and quasar, every atom and galaxy; it is the grounding, the cornerstone, the axis mundi, the hinge upon which all of life swings (Col. 1:15). In shorthand, we call this the Gospel, the Good News, and it is the best news you will ever hear, and the best gift I can share with you, my precious son.
You see, my precious son, my love for you will fail, and your identity, found and forged in our family, will never ultimately satisfy you unless you know who you are in Christ, as his beloved and adopted child, especially as you are bound to people you would not otherwise know or choose. This is the scandalous claim of the Church united by the Gospel. In this new family, we love even the stranger as family, because as Christ reminds us, in the stranger, we may encounter none other than Christ himself (Matt. 25:31-40).
Perhaps you are not struggling with your identity. And perhaps your family roots are strong as steel. And perhaps you do not like children’s books. But as one child [of the Almighty] to another, I pray you come to know your belovedness in Christ, and I pray the Church can be a community where you truly experience the embrace of the Father.
I want my son to know that after we’ve arrived at being our best-looking or wealthiest version of ourselves, what remains? When we are the most put together of all our friends, or our kids are the smartest, what do we then do when tragedy strikes? What will sustain us in those moments? Our stock portfolio will not, a well-organized garage or closet will not, a second home in the mountains will not, a well-formed six pack of abs won’t either. Only the trust in a God who adopted us through Jesus Christ can sustain us. Because when we’ve lost much, or have been hurt deeply, there is a hope which transcends the rise and fall of civilizations; there is a hope that transcends the rise and fall of relationships and lives; and there is a hope that transcends even the rise and fall of our well-formed abs. I want my son to know this hope, and so I read him stories.
As I sat with my son tonight and read, he shoved a final graham cracker into his mouth and snuggled up to my side. My heart was alive at the sacred moment between a father and a son, rooted as it was in story time. I was mindful of my own absent father and the way my heavenly Father has brought healing into my heart. I also was aware of the manifold ways for fathers (and parents) to be absent, as I sometimes am, even while maintaining physical proximity. In this moment I was grateful for the real presence of God, and the new family God is creating in the Church — through history — but also in my parish, and yes, in my own family. And for a moment, I saw the Father’s face, in my Son, in graham cracker crumbs, in stuffed animals and the embrace of Father and Son. If my son had not fallen asleep, perhaps I would have been singing:
O Brightness of the immortal Father’s face,
most holy, heavenly, blest,
Lord Jesus Christ, in whom his truth and grace
are visibly expressed:
The sun is sinking now, and one by one
the lamps of evening shine;
we hymn the eternal Father, and the Son,
and Holy Ghost divine.
Worthy art thou at all times to receive
our hallowed praises, Lord.
O Son of God, be thou, in whom we live,
through all the world adored.
Fr. Clint Wilson is rector of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, KY.