As a child, I got the most praise for having an encyclopedic knowledge of the world. I remember my father taking me to my elementary school late one night where a map of the United States was painted on the playground asphalt. As the dusk settled in, I walked from state to state reciting capitals. I memorized most of the periodic table when I was in middle school. In high school, we would walk around New York City, him quizzing me on facts about the history and function of the different buildings and about the art work we saw in the museums.
I’m guessing this is probably an unusually extreme experience, to have so much of your value depend upon your ability to memorize trivia, but then also we are all steeped in a culture of intellectualism, a desire to know the right answers, and a value system that is based on achievement and accomplishment.
In this season of drought, the park by my house has a bed overflowing with broad leaves and giant, red-orange blooms look completely out of place next to our scrappy Texas natives. And yet in this garden bed that I’m pretty sure no one ever tends to, they are putting on a magnificent display in a time of brittleness and parched earth.
My first thought when I saw them last night was, oh, those are amaryllis plants. And my second thought was, oh my children wouldn’t be able to name that. I felt anxiety rising within me. I have purposefully rejected the parent-as-examiner role. I wondered, am I somehow depriving my children of something important–a grounding in knowledge or future success–by not focusing our time together on gathering and reciting facts? But then my third thought was, I can’t believe they’re blooming, they look amazing.
In that moment, what clicked in my head was that it was the last thought that was the important one. That’s what I want my kids to see when they look at the world. I want them to look around themselves and see all of the beauty that constantly surrounds us, all of the miracle that we are soaked in. The miracle of an ant and of the wind and of the luminous moon hanging in the sky. That's what I want them to see first. How much better for them to notice first than to name.
Some time ago we did a sermon series about how God names us and as part of that we said, we can practice knowing the name for the things in God’s creation that surround us. But what I realized on my walk home is that the name shouldn’t come first. First comes the noticing, the seeing, the appreciation of beauty, the recognition of miracle and those things then call us to put that somehow into words. The other way around is just an empty pursuit of knowledge that leads to comparison and judgment that actually drains our vision of beauty and turns everything into an object to be categorized and learned.
Not all intellectual effort is bad. Indeed, our desire to understand has led to incredible life-saving modern medicine and unbelievable technology. But it’s the need to know for the sake of knowing, rather than for being instruments of healing and connection, that I’m stepping back from in myself and as a parent. I want my children to look first with awe and wonder at their world and second, to want to explore their world more deeply.
On this Easter weekend we bear witness to the mysteries that we can't understand. The mystery of God's strength and yet also way of choosing weakness. The mystery of the existence of evil and yet God's enduring love and resurrecting power. The mystery of experiencing and taking in suffering and yet God's transformation of that suffering into gift. The mystery of death and yet also our stepping into everlasting life. Let us sit with those mysteries this weekend without trying to figure them out.
And beyond this weekend, what I want to remember to see when I look around and what I hope for my kids to see is not a bunch of names humans have bestowed nor facts to accumulate, but to see instead the one greatest truth that is always there if we look for it: that this whole world, the expanse of the skies and each individual dust mote and each one of us when we choose it, is a complete expression of God's great and miraculous love. That is the true name that we have each been given.