As Christians we’re in the loving business. That might sound crass, like something from an awful Valentine’s Day card. But love, authentic and fierce love, is actually difficult and challenging beyond compare. We learn it from God, we learn it from life, we learn it from the most surprising of places.
When my daughter Lucy was tiny, just four years old, I took her to see The Nutcracker in Toronto, that annual event of pristine Christmas escapism. There she was, in her party dress, with a smile and enthusiastic anticipation, sitting on her booster seat and leaning in as if magnetized to the ballet and its fantasy. Then the music ended, the audience applauded, and we left.
At which point she began to cry. Tears bisected her miniature cheeks, and she was nothing but weeping and sorrow, and it was as if my life was collapsing before me. Why Lucy, why? She had seemed so exquisitely happy. “Because,” she said, in between gulps for air, “because it’s stopped and it’s finished”—more gulps —“and I don’t want the magic to be over. I don’t want the magic to end.” Now it was my turn to feel tearful. I managed to reply: “Darling, I promise you the magic will never end.”
It was an enormous promise to make, the earnest kind that parents use. In the eyes of the child it gives us a mythical status but it also suggests a kind of control that parents eventually come to realize they do not have. Then the child turns into the teenager, who is now the beautiful, brilliant young woman who has lived everywhere from New Zealand to Paris, and Oxford to Canterbury.
She was married two years ago and I spoke at her wedding. I think I avoided the grotesque clichés but I did try to tell her that I loved her. That phrase seems so weak, so often used and abused to explain and even forgive a whole ocean of emotions and actions. What I felt was more complex than that. After all, the common idea of a parent’s love for a child feels protective, even condescending, when a parent’s relationship with a child is symbiotic. Any mother or father who assumes that they are the exclusive guide and guard of their child should think again. Children make the world appear much more dangerous and vulnerable, but also far more exciting and new.
So instead of “I love you,” I told her that I’ve often failed. Not through lack of effort, and often due to too much rather than too little concern, but that I got it wrong more times than I can count. I told her that a father’s love for a daughter means knowing when one is wrong, trying to repair damage, empathizing with what can seem bewildering and intimidating, letting go instead of holding on, and seeing the autonomous splendour in a child instead of trying to glorify a version of the parent. Parental love is rejoicing in the shock of the new, and singing the metaphorical poetry of a new generation.
But there’s more. Lucy changed me. Eight years ago I had a radical transformation, forged by a spiritual conversion, layered with a succession of experience, and by my relationship with my daughter. Despite my beliefs, and despite her longtime rejection of organized religion, she was never didactic, and never asked for any change. But by watching her relationships and exquisite leaps of tolerance and understanding, I was obliged to hold up a mirror to my ideas, beliefs, and — yes — prejudices. Her attitudes and relationships liberated me, and frankly her wisdom shamed me. When I embraced equal marriage, social liberalism, and what some see as a revolutionary form of Christianity, Lucy said to me: “Dad, I would never have asked you to do this, but I am so, so glad that you have. I am so happy.” I went to my study and I wept. When I was ordained a year ago, there she sat. More tears.
How, then, do we and should we love God and love God’s creation? With all that we have, with our heart and soul, but also with humility and an understanding that it is usually we who have to change. With a willingness to apologize, to learn from others, and to see beyond our own needs and wants. Love, Christian love, isn’t easy and isn’t supposed to be. But if we try hard enough, the magic never ends.