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about me adult children fear sin spiritual life wonder

Cultivate Wonder

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One of the worst sins I am often guilty of—and my wife and children can attest to it—is scorn. You know what I mean. Scoffing, diminishing the excitement or wonder of others. Parents often do it to their kids. Why do we do it? I think there are two reasons, both based on fear.

The first is that we fear being thought naive or innocent. When I was little, I wanted to be one of the big kids. I wanted to be included, wanted to belong to the group that was more privileged by age, getting to stay up a little later, getting to watch TV shows for more mature audiences, getting to read books with adult language and themes. I tried to present myself as knowing, even when what I knew was nothing or very little. With a little luck, I could pass myself off as more experienced, less innocent.

The second is a deeper and worse fear. It is the fear of wonder itself. Wonder takes us out of ourselves. It makes us feel awe at the world around us. It involves acknowledging that we do not know everything, that what we can control is very limited, that uncertainty and vulnerability are part of life. In wonder we yield ourselves up to something greater than we can understand, and there’s always the terrible possibility that we will not matter. Wonder exposes the insecurity we feel at our own insignificance.

To defend ourselves we—or at least I—practice scorn. I adopt a knowing, superior air. Oh, yes. I know all about that. What? You didn’t know? I act as if nothing surprises me, when in fact the capacity to be surprised is essential to every new invention or discovery. Scorn acts as an armor protecting me from the derision of others who might mock my naivete. It makes me invulnerable—or so it seems.

Scorn builds a safe space for a fragile ego, but it does so at a cost. What I gain in invincibility, I lose in delight and wonder. I lose also in trust. Acting superior doesn’t make anyone trust me more; it makes them afraid to share their own wonder with me. It doesn’t prove me more knowing; it shuts me off from new experiences and those who want to share them with me.

When Jesus took a child and stood him among his disciples and told them, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” I believe one of the characteristics of childlikeness he was commending was the capacity for wonder. Children are full of wonder. I see it constantly in my granddaughter, how freely she oohs and ahs over things I have long since considered mundane. The whole world is new to her, and if I choose to enter into her experience of it, it becomes new to me again too.

This coming year, I resolve to cultivate wonder. I will let down my guard. I will enter into the delight and excitement of others. I will be on the lookout for opportunities to behold the world as God sees it—always new.

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adult jesus kindness love race racism religion self

Love is Care

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It has become standard practice now to follow “Love your neighbor as yourself” with admonitions to love yourself. Yet the New Testament never has any such admonitions. Has self-loathing become such a problem over the past 2,000 years that we now need to be told to love ourselves? Or are we missing something that first-century readers took for granted?

When Jesus told his disciples to love their neighbors as themselves, he was talking about care. He was not talking about feelings of self-worth or affection. He was not urging people to like their neighbors but to care for them. If your neighbor is hungry and you have food, feed them. If your neighbor is thirsty and you have drink, give them a drink. If your neighbor is naked and you have extra clothing, clothe them. Don’t ignore your neighbor’s need but treat it as you would your own. Just as you would act on your own behalf to secure what you need to thrive, so act on your neighbor’s behalf to help them thrive. This is what the New Testament means by love. It is care.

Jesus made this meaning explicit when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was nothing about how the Samaritan felt affection toward the injured traveler or how the Samaritan had to like himself first in order to help. No. He took care of his obvious needs when the man was unable to care for himself. Instead of blaming the man for whatever he did to become a victim, he just saw a fellow human being in need and went out of his way to help him. He treated him as he himself would have wanted to be treated—with kindness, compassion, and love. He took care of the man. He tended him and paid for his continued care. He helped.

This kind of care is not intended as a long term relationship of dependency. The Samaritan did not undertake to provide for the injured traveler for the rest of his life. He didn’t seek to make the man show gratitude. He just did what was within his means to provide the sort of short-term help he could see the man needed. He assumed that when the man recovered, he would resume taking care of himself.

Jesus contrasts the Samaritan’s behavior with that of two other men, both revered by his Jewish audience: a priest and a Levite. These two men, steeped in the Law and assumed to be holier than the average Jew, did not see a fellow human being in need. They saw an entanglement to be avoided, and unexpected expense, a burden. Their own pursuits were more important than the life of the beaten traveler. They didn’t have time. They didn’t care.

Jesus made his hero a Samaritan to drive home that the love he is talking about transcends racial and social barriers. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews as half-breeds who had compromised their faith and married Gentiles. If anyone had reason to not help the man who had been robbed and beaten, it was the Samaritan. But he did not see a hated Jew bleeding by the roadside. He saw a human being. He didn’t have to like him. He didn’t have to be friends with him. He didn’t have to keep in touch after the man recovered. He just had to help him when he needed help.

The New Testament writers assumed that those they were writing to were adult enough to care for themselves. That is why there are no admonishments to love yourself. Reasonably healthy people take care of themselves. They feed and clothe themselves and take showers and go to work and earn their own living. It doesn’t mean that they like themselves or don’t feel ashamed or guilty. It doesn’t mean that they have high self-esteem or self-confidence. The love they have for themselves expresses itself in care for themselves. It is that kind of love that Jesus urges his followers to have for their neighbors, a willingness to help when help is needed, a willingness to bear someone else’s burden for a while. Love is care.

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adult boredom children death hell life memory novelty

All Things New

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Aging takes place at a pace that makes so many changes imperceptible. When you are a child, every experience is new. You don’t crave novelty because novelty is all you’ve ever known. Nameless feelings well up within prompted by intense sensations. Plain bread is exciting. Primary colors are a thrill. You hear upper harmonics in the music your parents listen to, and it either irritates you or enthralls you, and you can’t understand why your parents don’t respond the same way. The front lawn is a vast landscape of adventure and possibility. You love to hear the same stories over and over, so much more often than adults are willing to tell them. All your senses are sharper than they will ever be, yet you lack the vocabulary and experience to appreciate their sharpness.

As you age, your senses become duller. You learn to appreciate complexity. You are no longer satisfied with plain bread. You want a range of flavors and textures in what you eat. You learn to appreciate art. The upper harmonics fade, and you keep telling your kids to turn the bass down. You travel and find the world more strange and wonderful than you had ever imagined. You get bored with the same stories and begin to crave novelty for its own sake. Your experience and vocabulary have grown, but you sense that you have lost something ineffable, something fleeting and good like a distant flash of lightning at the periphery of your vision.

Memories begin to crowd into your mind, distant and dim memories covered with a patina of re-imagining and reinterpretation. You become less sure of the formative experiences you’ve told and retold to friends and family, especially when a brother or sister contradicts what you vividly remember. You begin to long for something new, but every purportedly new experience, every supposedly new development, begins to feel like a recycled version of something you already know. You come to realize that as much as your memories define you, they also limit you, pulling you back inexorably into your own past.

You don’t want something new.

You want all things new.

You want to be a child again, to experience the world with wonder and awe, to be free from your own experience while retaining the wisdom you’ve gained from it.

The promise of eternal life, an unending consciousness piling up more and more memories and experiences, has come to seem truly dreadful to me. To live and live and live and be unable to die sounds more like hell than heaven. Of course, no living thing welcomes death, except as an escape from intolerable pain, so it’s hard to imagine relinquishing life as long as the pain of living is tolerable, and if we know anything of heaven, it is that it is tolerable. But a tolerable existence cannot last long, surely cannot last forever. Eternity wears down everything. Joy, excitement, delight, pleasure—all partake to some degree of newness, and eternity must surely drain the newness out of everything.

So God promises, “See, I am making all things new!” It is this promise that restores hope in an eternal life. The universe is vast. If there is adventure among the insects and blades of grass in the front lawn, then surely there are untold wonders throughout the universe. Perhaps we will live to see them.

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