A few days ago, I was tucking my two year old son into bed, and he started begging me to lay on his floor as he fell asleep. I've done that at times in the past, particularly if he doesn't feel good, but we generally like for him to go to sleep by himself.
As I looked at his face and tried to think of the best response to, "But Daddy, I really need you to lay down on my floor for a little while," I thought that I had a moment of fatherhood brilliance.
The idea came to mind to use the moment to teach a profound spiritual truth to my toddler about God's presence with us. He has a book we read together at night that has a line where a person smiles and whispers, "God is here." So I thought to myself, "That's it! I'll teach him that God is in the room with him, and then it will let me off the hook about having to lay on his floor." The conversation went something like this.
Little D: But Daddy, I really need you to lay down on my floor for a while.
Me: Hey, Bud, you know that part in your book where someone smiles and whispers, "God is here"?
Little D: Yeah.
Me: Well, it's like that. I can't stay in your room right now, but God is here with you. So if you're laying here in your bed, you can look over there and imagine that God is laying on your floor while you fall asleep.
Me: Does that help a little bit?
Little D, without any moment of hesitation: No.
He made it very clear that he wasn't willing to accept theology in exchange for my presence in the room (even though I still think my theology was good). As soon as he did so, I knew what I had done was a bit silly; two year olds need their dads to be there in front of their eyes and live out what God is like, much more than they need us to use words to try to explain to them that an invisible God is always near. There are things about this that are both troubling and relieving to me.
Why it troubles me: I feel like I'm pretty good at explaining theology to people, but living it out in front of the always-learning eyes of a pre-schooler is a different ballgame. I enjoy talking about theology, I've got a really good sermon in my file about God's presence with us, and talking about these things with people is even part of what I get paid to do. But those things didn't do my little boy one ounce of good the other night.
What he told me with his quick "No" was that he needs a daddy whose character is so much like that of Jesus that it will make the theology lessons come easier later on. He needs me to be the kind of person who, by seeing me every day, will help him when he gets older and starts to think for himself about what we mean when we say that God is here, or is loving, good, forgiving, trustworthy, or holy... that those things will be very naturally believable to him because of how he has seen them in the life of his Daddy right before his eyes.
That sounds good as a write it, but it's a very tall order when I'm crabby, just wanting people to go along with my own plans so that I can accomplish the things I want to, and certainly not feeling much like that kind of Daddy that he needs. There are plenty of times that I would prefer trying to explain sanctification to a two year old than give him living proof of it.
But here's why it relieves me: because that Daddy that he wants and needs, who shows him what God's character is like and passes it on to him, is not only who he needs but is also who I most want to be. If I work at answering the question, deep-down at my gut level, of what I want most in life... that's it. I want to be that kind of man for my family. So I'm relieved that I don't have to come up with a children's book that would effectively help my kids understand atonement theories or the widely different views on eschatology, but instead that my main task is to shape my life in a way that I will predictably become more and more who they need me to be.
It's still a rare night that I lay down on his floor while he falls asleep, but I'm glad he gave me the reminder that my theology degrees are really not helpful to him, unless he can see with his eyes what they mean as he watches me.
So I guess I'll give up on that idea of reading Wesley's sermons to him for bedtime stories...