Persons, not projects
Something that I'm learning about being a new parent is how very easy it is to turn a child into a project to be managed, rather than seeing them as a person to be loved and enjoyed. Maybe it's particularly my personality, but I find that I'm constantly figuring out the logistics of Emerson's life: when was the last nappy change, is she getting enough sleep, is she warm enough, is she eating enough nutritionally appropriate foods, are we engaging in age-appropriate play etc. etc. Managing the project called 'my child' can come to feel like a precise science and one that often also feels perched on a knife edge...as though getting any of these things wrong will be catastrophic.
As long as I fall into the trap of trying to successfully 'do for' Emerson, I am setting myself up for a lot of anxiety and worry. Because of course, sometimes she doesn't sleep, some days she refuses to eat the food I've cooked for her, and so on. She's a person, not a project, and despite the best will in the world on both sides there will be many times when things do not go according to the book (...or in fact the pile of books on parenting that litter the house.)
When this happens, it's important for me to remind myself why we had a child in the first place. It wasn't to produce a successful, nutritionally balanced, developmentally sound human entity who sleeps the required number of hours in the day and goes on to have a successful educational career etc. etc. It was to co-create with God a new being that this world has never known or seen...someone to love and enjoy and get to know as a unique individual, someone to cherish and nurture as part of our family life, to become part of the circle of our friends and wider family. In short, we had Emerson for the sake of relationship.
When I remember to think in these terms, I am free - free just to like my daughter as my daughter, to play with her and laugh with her. I can be philosophical when she's spitting food in my face or sleeping for only half an hour at a time. Because while I'd really like her to swallow the food and sleep for longer, actually, these things don't matter so much in the great scheme of things. What matters is retaining a sense of her personhood and mine, rather than setting up a contest of wills in order to complete a perfect project.
I was brought up short recently by something I read on the Sacred Space website run by some Irish Jesuits. It was a reflection on how John the Baptist was so willing for his own ministry to diminish as people turned to Jesus. The reflection noted how we each tend to convince ourselves that we're indispensable - in some sphere of our lives. And that because we carry this sense that there's a job we have to do and only we can do it, we can put onto our own shoulders a responsibility that rightly belongs to God. These two sentences particularly stood out for me: " [God] did not put us in this world to help [God] out of a jam. [God] put us here because [God] loves us."
Our reason for being on this earth is not to 'do something great for God'. We may do something great, along the way, but that's not primarily the purpose of our existence. We have been created for relationship, created to love and be loved, starting with God's love for us. One of the striking aspects of Jesus' ministry is that he taught people to think of God as their heavenly Father, not just the awesome and rather terrifying God of Israel. Part of what he was doing by teaching people to pray to Abba, Father, was to re-orient them to the personal, to the relational, to remind them that before anything else, there is love.
In the same way as my daughter is not a project for me to manage, to get her to 'turn out right', we are not the objects of a great Project Manager in the sky. We are people that God wants to know and enjoy. God is less interested, I believe, in getting us to 'turn out right', than in being with us, and nurturing our distinctness and our personhood.
And, because God dwells within us, the more we become a fully flourishing human, the more God is present to the world. If, as Irenaeus said, 'the glory of God is a human fully alive', then God is enhanced by us becoming more ourselves. And to become more ourselves, is to realise why we were created: to allow space for God's love to become present to us, and to respond to that love in relationship. It's about who we become when at the core of our lives we nurture a dynamic meeting between God as lover and us as beloved.
I think that two striking things emerge from this basic relationship: freedom from anxiety, and freedom to relate to others with full humanity.
The middle section of the book of Isaiah - chapters 40-55 - are full of passages of God reminding the people of Israel that they are loved, and redeemed, and will get to go home after their years of exile. These chapters of the Bible have been well thumbed and well loved by generations of Christians, and have formed the basis of a number of hymns and choral works. The basic message of these texts is 'do not fear.' It's going to be okay. And the reason why it's going to be okay is that God has not forgotten that God created you and still loves you. The relationship is intact, even though the circumstances have been dark for many years. Here's a sampling:
"But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear...For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring." (44: 1-3)
"But now thus says the Lord, he who created you...Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you." (43: 1-2)
"Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn grey I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save." (46: 3-4)
God is with us from cradle to grave and beyond. There is no point at which the relationship ceases. And if we can get a handle on that as the basic truth of our lives, the underpinning of all we are and do, then there is no need to fear anything. I don't know about you, but the times when I get the most anxious are the times when I feel that I am alone, and that in that aloneness, I am expected to carry responsibility and make things work out well. I am fearful when I feel like too much is resting on my shoulders, and that I'm going to fail and wreck everything. Your personality might be different - you might feel most fearful when you suspect that other people don't like you or aren't pleased with you. Or perhaps you fear pain, or disappointment.
Whatever the source of the fear, I believe that knowing in some deep place inside us that God knows us and sees us, and carries and loves us, can offset the fear and free us to live without anxiety. If I can experience an awareness that the burdens I carry unnecessarily are actually God's to carry, and if I can realise that this life is not a project to be executed flawlessly...if I can believe that God put me on this earth in order to know and love me rather than because there's something I have to do, then there is no need for me to be anxious about fulfilling the task of living right.
This, I believe, is the understanding beneath Jesus' 'do not worry' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. If our heavenly Father clothes and feeds the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, how much more will God provide for us, whom God created to love and enjoy as God's children? This is not the promise of an easy life, and we know that in some parts of the world God's children do suffer from lack of food and basic provision. I think this passage, however, is aimed at those who have no need to worry, but still strive and fret, because they do not know who they are in God.
If we can know and experience ourselves as people God created, sees, redeems and loves, then not only might we be free from unnecessary fear, we are also free to love others in the way that they deserve. Immediately after the 'do not worry' passage in Matthew's gospel, comes the 'do not judge' passage. In the same way as we may need to learn that our lives aren't projects to manage, we may need to realise that other people's lives aren't either.
Our world conditions us to relate to others as performances to be assessed or products to be measured. The important questions in our culture, depending on who you hang around with are: how beautiful are you? how successful are you? how clever are you? how righteous are you? how 'nice' are you? how 'spiritual' are you? how athletic are you? how productive are you?
The questions God asks are 'who are you?' and 'do you love me?' And just as we may need to see ourselves as people God loves from before we are born, we may need to learn to see others the same way, as people to know and love whether or not they fit any of our criteria of a worthwhile human.
All of this makes life a great deal more enjoyable. We don't have to force or control or manipulate circumstances to work out our will. We don't have to engage in acts of domination or subterfuge to get our needs met. While things might get frustrating, disappointing, confusing, difficult or frightening, we are still okay, and we can accept that others are okay too. We don't have to pour a whole lot of energy into making ourselves or anybody else measure up. Life can be about persons, not projects. All of our projects and plans and achievements will cease. Some of them will be fruitless. Others will be extraordinary. But all of them will pass. What remains is love...the broad and long and high and deep love in which we are rooted and grounded: God's love for us that brought us into being, and sustains our lives, and will still be ours even when we die.