My daughter was born May 10th, 2019. She was premature at 4 lb 4 oz and 16.5″ long. My wife and I never anticipated being preemie parents, and we didn’t anticipate her coming this early since she was due in June. The reason she came early is that on my wife’s routine pregnancy visit the doctor found that she was preeclamptic (had high blood pressure which is dangerous for baby). So the doctor admitted her, I rushed home after class to pack our unpacked hospital bag, and induction began the night before she was born. I still had final exams to do, my wife still had one day of work left before her maternity leave started, and we both did not expect my wife’s blood pressure to stay high after birth causing her to need magnesium treatment and multiple ER visits. Though mom and baby are doing fine now, I’ve been overwhelmed in the best way by certain truths that modern life encourages us to forget.
When I held my daughter for the first time, I could feel her wriggly boney body through her soft skin. Her ribs were visible and her leg bones were thinner than my thumb (I’m not a big guy, either). I was careful putting pressure on her because all I could think was how she felt as light and brittle as styrofoam. The next thing that happened was one of the most paradoxical and seemingly contradictory things I’ve experienced (next to feeling the absurdity of life and the call of Jesus to follow Him and rest) in my life thus far: great joy and awe at the beauty of God’s creation, and great dread and fear at the frailty of it all, including myself. It reminded me of a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when the father is reflecting on the decrepit and dissolving post-apocalyptic world: “The frailty of everything revealed at last.”
Staring at my daughter while she slept in the hospital made me see that life is incredibly fragile and finite; I am incredibly fragile. Modern America encourages us to live as though we’ll never die, to self-create and thereby transcend our finitude, to believe we are our own. I am guilty of this. I spend my time thinking I can do everything, fix everything, accomplish everything, that I am in control. My daughter’s tiny body reminded me that every breath I take, every breath she takes, every bird that lands and eats, every minute instance of existence itself is totally and completely dependent upon God’s grace. To be really philosophical about it, God ontologically sustains all that is, gives it being and beauty and dignity, and has the power and the prerogative to take it away. That, combined with the theological truth that God so loved His creation that He sent His Son, that He promises to restore all things and invites us to become a part of His people (Church) through whom He primarily is revealing that restoration and reconciliation, has shown me more of what it really means to fear the Lord. In fear and anxiety and awe and joy and overflowing peace, I thank God for my daughter, and the grace of being at all. My daughter is an embodied and tangible reminder that, as David Bentley Hart says, “we exist only because there is One who has called us from nothingness.”
Another thing I realized, related to the previous point, is how powerless my daughter is. She cannot do anything for herself except poop. She is totally and utterly dependent upon my wife and me. Power is something everyone is striving for. Empowerment, giving power to the powerless, power to self-create or make up one’s own mind, power to live your best life, etc. These are the things we as Americans spend our time playing political triage with: who has power? who needs power? is it wrong for these people to have this much power? what is power? Staring at my daughter’s tiny dependent being made me uncomfortable in one sense because it reminded me of how, ultimately, I am powerless and dependent. Modern American life wants us all to believe that we are independent and autonomous and self-creating. Theologically, this is a mistake. Our beings and breath and everything are dependent upon God’s grace, His gift. We are not self-sufficient.
My daughter reminded me of the truth of the gospel that Jesus told His disciples. When asked if they could sit at Jesus’ left and right in His glory (i.e.: they wanted places of power and prestige when the Kingdom came) Jesus responded by inverting the world’s notion of power, thereby revealing the sharp distinction between the World and the Kingdom:
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be the first among you must be slave of all.” (Mk. 10:42b-44)
Power, for Christians and the life of the Church, is self-giving service and weakness. It is sacrifice, just as our Lord sacrificed, even to the point of death if need be. Life is not about asserting your power to do what you will, but to give that up to Jesus and take up a life of servitude as a slave to Him. Of course, this is the most counter-intuitive thing imaginable: I want to exercise my power and do what I will! Nobody is gonna stop me, not even God! I do this; it’s sin in me (Rom. 7). We followers of Jesus will never be rid of our old selves until He returns, but in the Church now, the time between times, we have the Spirit to give us that power. May we be reminded by the powerless, the children and elderly and cognitively impaired, that Jesus alone is truly powerful because He became weak. I thank God for my daughter and what He is already teaching me through her. I hope the Church (esp. in America) can learn to follow the Crucified and Risen One, the powerless One, the Almighty Lord, in faithfulness and steadfastness.