Standing Between Heaven and Earth

Yesterday, I stumbled upon a story about Shia women and girls in Baghdad training to use AK-47’s. With the men of their families gone to fight on the front lines of the burgeoning violence in Iraq, women and children are left to defend their own homes if ISIS and their allies try to take Baghdad. So they are preparing themselves.

The anti-war part of me feels like arming more civilians in Baghdad is, generally, a bad thing. But the new mother part of me imagines the terrifying scenario of being alone and unprotected with my infant daughter in a neighborhood that is under threat from violent men. And I think that biological, protective part of me would very seriously consider picking up a weapon in the same situation.

Now, I’m not going to join the NRA tomorrow, but I have noticed that I have become much more conservative after having a child. By that I mean that I feel much more protective of “my own”. For example, I live in central Harlem in a neighborhood not exactly known for its excellent public schools. I always thought that, if I raised my child in an area like this, I would avoid the crazy New York City culture of preparing toddlers for achievement tests for fancy private preschools to prepare them for fancy elementary schools to prepare them for fancy high schools and fancy colleges. Instead, I would put my children in our neighborhood public schools regardless of their purported quality, and I would join the PTA and vote to try to make my community schools better for all the kids. After all, why should my child get any more benefits than any other children in our neighborhood?

But now that I have a real live child whose welfare is my responsibility and whose future is the subject of ALL of my musings and dreams, I catch myself wondering if we could manage private school. I catch myself teaching to the tests, training her in complex developmental milestones as she drools and waits for me to clean up her poop. I can’t help it. I officially want to give my child the very best start in life that I can provide…even if it means she gets an unfair advantage over other children who are less privileged.

It is at times like these when I understand why Jesus and the Buddha didn’t have kids (Technically, the Buddha did have a kid, but left the kid in search of enlightenment!). It is hard to be a heaven-bent idealist, pondering the ultimate good for all creation, when you are so darn emotionally attached to one or two human beings on earth.

I’ve recently discovered the Jewish scholar Avivah Zornberg, who writes about this human conundrum of living life with one foot on earth and one in heaven. When God creates humanity, God gives us the instruction to “Be fruitful and multiply”—to have these babies and care for them in the same selfish and protective ways that any creature would care for their young. But, at the same time, God asks us to “have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)—to stand with God above the rest of creation as leaders and protectors of all the children of creation.

Zornberg describes our dual nature in this way:

[Her] origin and ultimate destiny are in the earth, the issues of fertility, increase, and survival dominate [her] experience. And yet [s]he knows [her]self invested with a singular Godlike power. From [her] vantage point, [s]he can see immense perspectives, come to conclusions far beyond the contingencies of the moment; yet [s]he is a participant in the driven, spawning multitudes [s]he can observe so splendidly from [her] metaphysical solitude. This is the essential dilemma of [humanity]…
The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis

So what do I do with this new-found earthy desperation to give my child the best of her born privilege? Do I just give into that desire? Or do I stick rigidly to my heavenly ideals and strip her of any advantage or leg up in the world? I haven’t figured it out yet, but I have come to one conclusion. It is not a bad thing for me to look at my daughter’s eager, gummy smile and to feel nature’s need to provide the best for her. That is a good, earthy, creaturely thing for me to feel.

But my heavenly nature reminds me that no gummy, eagerly smiling child deserves any less than mine. Those children in harm’s way in Baghdad deserve to be just as safe as I want my child to be. The kids in my neighborhood whose parents have no choice but to put them in public schools deserve to have the same high quality education that I seek for my kid. So now that I’m a parent, I have these new earthy desires for my own baby, but that also gives me access to these new heavenly desires for the well being of all babies.

In the book we are reading for Village Time this summer, Richard Rohr writes about how the church loses a lot when it stays too much in the spiritual/heavenly realm: “When Christianity loses its material/physical/earthly interests, it has very little to say about how God actually loves the world into wholeness.”

I encourage you to think this week about your earthly attachments, your creaturely feelings and priorities. And, instead of feeling guilty about how they distract you from your more Godly and spiritual life, wonder how they might inform and enhance how you understand God and the healing of the world.


Join us for Village Time on Sunday mornings at 9:15am. This summer we are reading together Richard Rohr’s book, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps.