I have been to enough of your concerts now that I am no longer surprised that you do your own thing and refuse to just follow the crowd. While all of the other children at your graduation sat, still and compliant, you participated fully in each moment: you mouthed the words to other classes’ songs, your face reflected your experience of each item on the programme. and when the time came for you to receive your scroll from the principal, you strode confidently (barefoot) onto the stage, unlike most of your classmates, who seemed completely overawed by the occasion, shook his hand and said thank you. I felt so proud.
I know that it is a dad’s job to be proud, but I genuinely believe that you are an exceptionally special boy. I love that you feel confident enough to be exactly who you are, unapologetically, no matter whose company you find yourself in. And I hope that the relentless cruelty of people in persecuting difference, and in bullying or manipulating those who think or act differently into conformity, will never quell that in you. If others do not understand you, if their worlds are so small and terrifying that they cannot contain the extravagant aliveness that is you, and if they try to drag you down into their muck so that they can understand you better, or – failing that – they try to destroy you so that you no longer remind them of their smallness, please remember that the problem does not lie with you. The world is suspicious of difference, intolerant of what they do not comprehend. But we do not hate them for that. We know that if they could see things without the filters of their pain, of their histories, of their ignorance, of their cultures and religions and languages, even, they would most likely make different choices. We forgive them because they are victims too, slaves to forces they cannot possibly understand. Just as we recognise that we are too, and so are kind to ourselves. We know that their violence and ignorance cannot be resolved by meeting it with our own violence and ignorance. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. Only love and forgiveness have the potential to break the cycle. And sometimes they won’t see that. Sometimes you will not want to love them and their actions will not warrant either love or forgiveness. Love anyway. You are not diminished by their violence, but you are diminished by your own.
I was so proud that you got an award for “curiosity”. That gave me great hope. My prayer for you is that you always ask questions and never settle for answers. The world is big and our experiences of it are invariably limited. If we think we have come to understand the fullness of life’s big mysteries, we delude ourselves. And the problem with settling for answers is that we become the bullies. If we know, then we have accepted that our own filters have let us see the world perfectly. And that is where the path to violence begins. It is what compels us to try make others see the world the same way we do. But if we seek to learn rather than to know, we are open to the potential to love. So may you always be curious. May you never be satisfied with answers, always prepared to see things differently.
I love your compassion, too. The teachers had asked each child in your class what they wanted to be when they grew up (a question that I have problems with philosophically, but that is for another post), you said you wanted to be a game ranger so that you could protect the animals. I was so, so proud. Other children wanted to be doctors so that could have money, or to be policemen so they could shoot bad guys. You wanted to defend the defenceless, give a voice to the voiceless. I know, just from that, that you know God, you understand what it is to live in the Kingdom. And may you never lose that. May you come to understand, more and more, that we are our relationships: our relationships with our families, our communities, our cultures, our enemies, our planet. And to work towards the health of all of those relationships is to love them, is to love ourselves, is to love God. But I see that you have a blossoming, deep understanding of that. You know Jesus in ways that go beyond the ridiculous theologies contained in the book they gave you as a prize, which was supposed to paraphrase the gospels for children but really merely reaffirmed God as a violent and punitive tyrant. Trust the logic of the Kingdom you already have in abundance: relationships are all, and love is the only way to build relationships. You could not possibly have seen it, but I hope in time you do, that the memory verse your class recited affirmed this: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” You will know that your relationships are right when they are characterised by these things. And although so many of the well-meaning and sincere and good teachers you will have will want you to believe that moral purity and personal salvation is what it is all about – that God cannot tolerate us if we are not perfect and that is why Jesus died – I hope this verse will stick. These things obviate law, and they – not moral purity or a “right” theology – are evidence of the Spirit’s work in you. You have these things in abundance (the self-control bit is a work in progress).
You are an amazing boy, and every year – despite how badly I parent sometimes – you surprise me with how confident and balanced and loving and godly you are. It is an honour and a privilege and an overpowering joy to be a father to you. Know that I will always be proud of you, always love you: I see who you are and you are beautiful. I love you, Nathan. Today we celebrate everything you are, everything you will become, every way in which you are building and will build the Kingdom. Happy, happy birthday.