Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Who is a child? III

Back in August, I began a three part series exploring my current theological understanding of children and so of my new role of parent. It took me a month to get to the second post and now I'm finally getting to the third and final one. Since it has been so long, here (again) is the outline:

Who is a child?
A precious gift of the Father and a member of the community of creation
A brother or sister for whom Christ died and an image-bearer called into service of neighbour
A recipient of God's Spirit, an addressee of God's word and a bearer of living hope

A recipient of God’s Spirit
Children, as members of the community of creation, are not only dependent upon the Father’s initiative and formed in and for the likeness of the Son, but are also quickened by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God’s pneuma or breath, which he graciously breathes into all living things. Hence, for children too, each breath is not earned but received as a gift. The length of their lives is not a right, but pure grace. Therefore, while early death is a tragedy, even so it is both possible and right to give thanks amidst the tears for whatever life was given.

Being alive also means being able to act, and to be acted upon: to give and to receive; to kill and to be killed. And children, for all their surprising capacities, are nonetheless more sinned against than sinning, more recipients than givers. We are all mortal and vulnerable to the violent attention of our neighbour. But for children, as their capacity for action is generally less developed, so their vulnerability to being harmed is greater, and their need for nurture, protection and provision increases.

Yet the Spirit is not only the source of life, but also its perfecter, drawing all things towards their fulfilment in Christ. And so the growth of a child in being able to give and receive love is also the work of the Spirit. Children embody an openness to growth and change that is at once fragile and full of possibilities. It is fragile because the accumulation of hurt can lead the heart to close up, to harden in vain pursuit of self-protection. But it is also full of possibilities, because only a childlike willingness to trust and explore can expand lives beyond the borders of the self. Such openness is not only for children, since from them we all might learn again of the renewal of wonder and the wonder of renewal.

And so the double vulnerability of human life is brought into focus by the lives of children: vulnerable to sin; but also vulnerable to grace. We are never so secure in one that the other might not break through. But belief in the Spirit means discovering that the fight is not evenly-matched. And so children are not condemned to repeat the mistakes of their parents or their culture. The gift of the Spirit is not simply being, but truly being, and ultimately, truly being ourselves.* The Spirit brings not only life, but power. Not power to pursue our whims, or crush our enemies, but power to become children of God, power to act despite fear, power to persevere in love, power to break free of destructive habits.

And so it is possible for children to learn their parents’ strengths without each generation being an inevitable degeneration. There are no guarantees of progress, but it is possible for parents both to aim to set an example, and yet hope that their children might yet exceed it.
*Thanks to Anthony for this formulation.

An addressee of God’s Word
Children learn to speak because they are first addressed. Their communication skills are gained though imitation, repetition and play. They are brought into a conversation they did not start but in which they are invited to play a genuine role. This is true both at a sociolinguistic and theological level. Parents and carers speak to an infant who can only reply with cries and gurgles, in the hope that one day the conversation will be richer and broader. God initiates a spiritual conversation with us, rejoicing over us with singing before we know who we are or how to respond. And we only learn through imitation, repetition and play, gradually discovering the language of love in which we are addressed and through which we begin to form our stumbling replies.

The word with which children are addressed is the same Word given to us all: the incarnate Christ, breathed out by the Spirit. And as such, it is a word of welcome and permission: "let the little children come to me". This divine word of acceptance is spoken through many messengers and generally begins in and with the love and acceptance offered by parents and family to a newborn. It may be more or less articulate, more or less liable to be confused or drowned by other voices, but it is never entirely absent.

As co-addressees of God's revealing and redemptive Word, children are therefore dignified. The divine address is a recognition and conferral of personhood. Before knowing anything, they are known, and loved. They are welcomed by God and so are to be welcome among us. We must make room in our lives for children. This is not to say that all have an obligation to generate offspring, but that no one may attempt to live a life that avoids or ignores the voices and presence of children. If God has recognised them, welcomed them, who are we to turn them away?

With this recognition comes the responsibility to respond. Communication is far more than a mere transferral of information, it is an offer of communion, of mutual sharing, of relationship. To be addressed is to be invited, summoned to reply. The same Spirit that breathes out the word also opens the heart to respond. And so all children are to be given room to hear and obey the divine address, to begin learning the language of faith, hope and love so that they may become full conversation partners. Fluency is the task of a lifetime.

A bearer of living hope
Finally, children are born into a dying world, a world filled with problems they did not create. They suffer deprivations and afflictions they have done nothing to deserve. They frequently succumb to the patterns of failure in which they are raised, or by rebelling against them, create an equally distorted mirror image of their parents' dysfunctions. Likewise, they inherit riches they have not earned and a cultural and familial legacy deeper than they can fathom.

And yet, children also represent a renewal of life, a new generation that will face different possibilities (and which may face similar possibilities differently). They are not bound to repeat the mistakes of their parents. They can grasp afresh the human condition and act in ways that are more than merely the sum of their inputs.

And so children are at once bearers of both continuity and discontinuity, ambiguous symbols of new life amidst decay, and yet still of death amidst even new life.

But children also live in a world ravaged by grace, inundated with the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead, and so a world infected by hope. Their lives, though arising from the dust, are not exhausted in three score years and ten. Their bodies, though frail and susceptible to accident, neglect and abuse, are nonetheless witnesses of an open secret: all things are to be made new. Even here, amidst the most beautifully fresh and thus also most poignantly flawed aspect of human life, the already-dying flesh of a newborn, even here, the Spirit of God hovers, waiting to breathe life forevermore.
See here for the first post and here for the second post in this series.
Image by Steve Chong.

2 comments:

Jo N Jules said...

Cute picture - your niece? ;)

byron smith said...

Yep. :-)