Except God Be in You

When I was a senior in high school, my friend Julie gave me a graduation gift, a book called Ragman, by Walter Wangerin, a Christian writer and father. In this book is an essay Wangerin wrote about his son Matthew, who forgave him once for losing his shit on him. In the story, Wangerin compares this forgiveness from a young boy to the first miracle Jesus performed, turning water into wine. According to Wangerin’s account of the Gospel story, some people at the wedding mumbled among themselves: “The water had no right to be wine. Unless God be in Him.”

Yesterday, I had a bad parental moment. I have several every day, if I’m totally honest, but this one resounds in my mind, because I experienced the miracle Wangerin wrote about in that essay I read twenty-five years ago. It was time to get Jack up from his afternoon nap, a task usually accomplished by Brian, after he’s finished his work day. But we have all been brutally sick with a cold, and he needed a break to rest. So I went in. I was already grumbling about half a dozen tiny inconveniences, including the cat following me around the kitchen, yowling as though starving. (If you’ve ever seen my cat, you know he’s not likely to starve any time soon.)

Then I went into Jack’s room, still simmering with annoyance, and he didn’t want me. He wanted his daddy. Because he was used to having Daddy. He got loud about it. He was upset because our bedroom door was closed. He wanted to go into “the white room.” He wanted to see “two shirts” (both Brian and me). I recall these small phrases, because they were the loudest, his sentences crescendo-ing into whiny shouts. His diaper was also poopy, and the room reeked. Finally, I snapped at him. JACK! You cannot go into the white room! There’s only one shirt! I have to change your diaper! And he started to cry.

I felt like three pieces of shit. I somehow got him to lie down (not by force; I was already sorry and chastened) and changed his diaper in silence as he whimpered and cried. When I started doing his OT exercises, he had quieted enough for me to say, “I’m sorry, buddy. Mommy messed up.” Then he stopped crying completely. He giggled. “Mommy messed up,” he repeated. Then he laughed again.

And suddenly, it was over. My anger and his anxiety and everything just evaporated. It. Was. Gone. He fixed everything. I didn’t know what to say or do. I laughed a little and repeated it again. “That’s right. Mommy messed up.” And he laughed again, and then got up and went out to the living room to play.

This, folks, is what we call forgiveness. Real forgiveness. Not the forgiveness that I wring out of my stingy heart on rare occasions. The forgiveness that says, “Well, OK, I guess I can forgive you, but that means I have leverage for next time.” The forgiveness that doesn’t actually forget the injury. That’s not forgiveness. That’s blackmail. I could learn a few things from my five-year-old boy.

And that’s where Wangerin comes back in. His words echo in my heart. Here they are, so you can see for yourself:

That child! That child had no right to forgive me so! Where did he get the knowledge? Where did he get the maturity, the might of an ageless mercy, the transfiguring power to make me his son, and to make his son free? No, this was not logical. The sequence, somewhere between my sin and his charity, was breached; some other cause had cracked into the process: he was wine! And I–sweetly limp in my chair–whispered, “Except God be in you.”

I’d like to somehow capture that amazing gift of being present with what is. To allow myself to fully and vividly feel grief or anger or sadness, and then just let it go. Maybe I used to have it, when I was little. Maybe all children can model that full presence in the moment. I think most of us adults could benefit from it. We forget about the miracles of life. The tiny and huge miracles of letting go. But I, for one, would love to remember.

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