My granddaughter has been holding me spellbound as she alerts me that even the faintest gusts of love or laughter, of dismissal or devaluation, have amazing power to form or deform. She teaches me that even as so much unravels, any of us open to it are participating in the miracle of becoming ourselves as persons made in the image of God.
Here then, drawing on this week’s Eastern Mennonite Seminary convocation presentation, is the sixth and final post in the six-part series introduced in “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling” on a.) ways the church, denominations, concepts and patterns of ministry, theological training are unraveling and b.) how we might work at weaving and reweaving. Here I want to ask how, in deep and primal ways, our lives in community with each other form us, weave and reweave us, individually and jointly, as the selves God invites us to be.
Present at the Big Bang
On November 6, 2013, I dreamed of an impish little girl. I’d been gathering trash in a leaf bag. I knew it wasn’t sanitary, but I thought it wouldn’t kill her when we both seemed drawn to putting her in the bag, closing it around her shoulders, and playfully carrying her around. Although she couldn’t talk yet, in the dream I sensed her interests and thought Well, her parents won’t be too excited but probably won’t catch us. We had a high old time. As I pondered the clues—aging me, baby too little to talk, parents to be outwitted, so much giggling to be done—this, I concluded, was my granddaughter.
I reported the dream to my daughter, who was celebrating that an ultrasound had allowed her to see the heartbeat even of her blueberry-sized embryo, whom she too thought was a girl. My daughter welcomed any more dreams and commented that “This one was magical, even if you were putting my daughter in an unsanitary situation.”
Seven months later the blueberry was born. I had carried her mischievous magic in my heart with both a smile and a sense of kinship with gospel writer Luke’s report (2:19) that after Jesus’ birth, mother Mary pondered these things in her heart. As my granddaughter seemed, eerily and wonderfully, precisely the girl I had already met, I was reminded also of Jeremiah. The Lord says of him (1:5), “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, / and before you were born I consecrated you. . . .”
My grandparental gaze had already been trained by my first grandchild, about whom I had also had a primal dream: Grandson and Grandpa crossing a sand dune above a mystic ocean. I had learned that one grandparenting gift is to cherish grandchildren from above the action.
I dearly loved my own baby daughters. I’ll never forget when the mischievous mother of my mischievous granddaughter played the song “Baby Beluga” 50 times while supposed to be asleep before cheerfully reporting, “I done with nap now, Daddy.” But amid many treasured memories, when I try to remember details I often see a crazed blur of daughters and parents trying to figure out how to get enough sleep or milk or fun but not the too-much fun of keys in outlets or cars dodged in a street crossed at the wrong time.
For a grandparent, the blur slows, like reliving a marvelous baseball play in slow motion. As I’ve experienced this with a granddaughter I felt bonded with from blueberry on, watching her grow has seemed like gazing, spellbound, as God hovers over what is formless and void before with a Big Bang calling forth light and sky and ocean and all living beings.
What I’m awed to glimpse, and it’s awe before the holy, is a person in the very act of being formed, formed through relationships with others, self, and ultimately God. As we laugh and tease each other and read books and put paper bags over our heads and laugh some more, minute by minute I learn her rhythms and loves and dislikes and longings and she mine.
So when I enter the room I know to expect large eyes waiting to see who it is. Then the “It’s Grandpa!” smile appears. Grandpa goes bonkers. A shy head leans into her mom’s shoulder. Patience required. At what she deems just the right moment her arms stretch out to melt my heart.
Theories about what’s happening here are valuable. The stories told, often in their conflicting ways, by Freud, Jung, Mead, Mandell, Piaget, Erickson, Bowen, Bowlby, and more have influenced my grandparent’s gaze. What generates my deepest awe, however, is that sense of observing a human emerge in real time.
Seeing just how powerful even tiny grandparent/grandchild interactions can be also underscores that things will go wrong. Sometimes it’s just an accident, the fingertip graze of a baby’s eye that turns giggles into outraged sobs. Other times the delicate dance of human formation is profoundly violated.
Watching the intricacies shaping my granddaughter second by second, I think of what I know of my own infancy. The story of my missionary parents taking me at three months on a ship from Miami to Havana and my being the only one not throwing up on heaving decks. The photo of my mother hanging laundry on the roof of the first Cuban house we lived in, where she said I cried almost constantly. Sitting in my crib while in the kitchen, on the other side of the thin wooden wall, my parents wrestled with their missionary work—and thinking, though I can’t be sure such an early memory is reliable, You are all alone in this crib; you’ll need to take care of yourself.
Or go back a generation. In her final weeks, my mom, even with a mind strokes and Parkinsons had frayed, still ached to make sense of her relationship with her own mom. She showed me written fragments she had labored over in which she wrestled with loving a mother who, emotionally distant, had largely had another woman raise her.
In his last days, my dad sought to heal wounds going back to those Cuba days. When I was two, his depressed father checked himself out of treatment and ended his life. A photo in my seminary office shows me and my dad in his Cuba office soon after his dad’s death. Am I imagining that his face looks haunted? What’s going on in him? In me?
One day I accidentally brushed the photo to the floor. The frame’s glass shattered. The shards spoke to me of how easily during becoming ourselves we fall and break.
They hint at the Genesis 3 account of Adam and Eve evicted from their primeval garden, their return barred by an angel’s flaming sword. We aren’t shaped only within a flow of innocent love, laughter, play. We’re also born into shattered glass going back to the dawn of time.
Even a dream of mischievous girl holds dangers. How in seeking what I dreamed do I deform as well as form? When am I twisting her into my rather than God’s image? How did my imperfect love for my own daughters help shape both their best and broken selves even as how my parents loved me, in turn shaped by how their parents loved them, both tore and treasured the person I was to become?
We all face such questions, whether grandparents, grandchildren, parents, the children each of us once were, or participants in this seminary community or any formational setting. Here we learn to minister and be ministered to. We invite each other into sacred spaces. This includes not least the core of who we are, how we became who we are, who we’re yet to become. This can mean going down, down, down into the layers of our selves and stories, our laughters and joys, our traumas and tears.
It also means gazing out—out across the large social, environmental, climatological, and global forces shaping our most intimate beings. To see, for example, how sensitive a grandchild is to a minute shift in gaze or voice is to grasp that the merest external breeze can twist our formation.. Even the slightest gusts of violence actual or threatened, of abuse, of racism, of marginalization by poverty, sickness, low-status occupations, having our identity viewed as abomination, can distort your and my ability to embrace that great gift—being formed in the very image of God.
In seminary, university, church, or other communities informed by faith understandings, we’re invited to wrestle with how to understand, confront, and transform the forces that twist us. We’re called to root ourselves in that amazing inaugural dream of Jesus. Grasping matters at levels more profound than we ever will, he launched his ministry with a vision of what it would take to re-form his followers, to gather their shards of glass back into panes through which the holy could shine into their very cores. As Jesus put it in Luke 4:18-19,
Here we are—in shards. Here we also are—able to exchange with each other something like a grandparent’s gaze through which to see and treasure in midstream that Big Bang of creation—our becoming the persons we’re meant to be.
This is why some of the most amazing moments in seminary life are the stories seniors tell in graduates’ brunch of arriving lost and departing found. This is why one of the most awe-inspiring things any of us can do is to participate in the miracle of becoming ourselves.
Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post has roots in a September 1, 2015, EMS convocation presentation.