—by Ryan LaHurd
Every Tuesday and Thursday my wife and I care for our 2.5 year-old grandson. On those days you might find me racing friction cars down cardboard ramps, visiting the neighborhood fire station to touch a ladder truck or watching “L” trains stop at the station we can see from our dining room window and calling out, “Red Line!” or “Purple Line!”
Our three other grandchildren live thousands of miles away. With them, we concentrate on how to manage visits three or four times a year, not how to enjoy about 20 hours a week. Having so much time with my grandson is a surprising joy and an unexpected spiritual education. Let me explain.
For most of my life, the word “Repent!” just reminded me of that cartoon: you know, the unkempt bearded guy holding the sign warning us to get ready for the impending end of the world. In the most common translation of Jesus’ exhortation in Mark 1:15, we get the background for the cartoon: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” I thought of “repent” as an exhortation to look back and feel regret for ways in which I have fallen short of the ideal. In that sense, repenting seems as easy as saying, “Yup, I am really sorry about that. I want to do better, and I will try.”
Later in life I learned that the word “repent” as used in that verse and throughout the New Testament is a poor translation of a Greek word, metanoia. Indeed, 500 years ago Martin Luther, whose 95 Theses begin with a reference to the word “repent,” explored the word in a letter to his confessor, Johann von Staupitz. Luther argued that, contrary to the Roman church’s traditional teaching that metanoia means “confession and penance,” repentance should be understood as “a change of mind.”
In Repentance: A Cosmic Shift of Mind and Heart, Edward J. Anton says that for the apostle Paul, “metanoia is a transfiguration for your brain” that opens a new future (pp. 31-32). Serving as an over 70-year-old companion to a toddler has indeed transfigured my brain. And it has shown me what Jesus meant in Matthew 18:3: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Perhaps the most important transfiguration is my re-appreciation of the exciting world in which we live. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes in “God’s Grandeur,”
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
I believe we fail to feel that charge because it’s routine. We know our environment; we’re experienced in living; we operate best with routines. Hopkins acknowledges this:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
So even if, as I did, people love the work they do, 40 or 50 years of toil indeed blears and smears the world’s wonder. Yet even if we have grown bored, the world has not grown boring:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…
Given the human brain’s propensity to conserve energy by routinizing and filtering out unnecessary data, it’s not surprising that after decades of experience we may see the “charged” world as discharged. However, for a young child, the freshness of the world is much closer to the surface. To engage meaningfully with such a child, we, too, must pay close attention to the ever new creation. For me, my grandson is the voice of Revelation 21:5: “See, I am making all things new.”
For most of my life, being “born again” was either a troublesome challenge from a different brand of Christianity than my own or an apt but unengaging metaphor for baptism. Now it is a reality for which I have a curly-haired toddler to thank.
Our third-floor condo is located 100 feet from Broadway Street on Chicago’s north side. Excited to know what every siren brings, my grandson rushes to the dining room window to see. “Firetuck,” “amblance” and “pleece car” were among his first words. Eyes wide, he points, says the name, and looks at me for confirmation. “Wow, yeah,” I say in surprise. When we go for walks, things flame out of the landscape for him: sparrows eating the crumbs of his dropped cookie, squirrels climbing the boulevard shade trees, and especially big yellow school buses.
I’ve found new joy in sharing these experiences with him and in celebrating his excitement. But the most meaningful result is that my awareness has grown. Even when he is not with me, I look up at a passing fire truck and think how impressive its long ladder is. I, too, see the world as fresh again and celebrate creation, grateful for the opportunity to exchange my old mind for a new one. My time to celebrate is shorter than his, and I am happy not to waste it.
In the August 19, 2017, edition of the New York Times Sunday Review, Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths contemplate why creativity generally tends to decline as we age. “One reason may be that as we grow older, we know more,” they explain. “That’s mostly an advantage, of course. But it also may lead us to ignore evidence that contradicts what we already think. We become too set in our ways to change.” Hanging around with a curious, creative toddler offers an effective antidote.
On a recent trip to the U.K., we hiked parts of the Welsh coastal path and visited a Swansea-based museum dedicated to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Their permanent exhibition of Thomas’s life and work is titled, “Love the Words.” As a person who reads the dictionary for entertainment, I resonated with that. Part of my academic training has been in linguistics, and all of us in the field stand in awe of the prodigious accomplishment of 2 year-olds, who have not been taught grammar yet create sentences they have never heard spoken.
Whenever I’m with my grandson there is at least one forehead-slapping, jaw-dropping, linguistic moment. Recently we heard a loud vehicle chugging down Broadway. “You think that’s a construction vehicle?” I asked him. “Actually it’s a street roller,” he responded. I am not sure it was, but who cares? My toddler grandson had just correctly used the word “actually” in a sentence! Although his obsession with vehicles and identifying their types and parts leads me to predict he will be an engineer, his curiosity about words could presage his being an English professor like his grandfather. Every outing is replete with his oft-repeated inquiry: “What’s that called?”
Unfortunately, my answer is sometimes that I don’t know.
I have come to see his desire to know the names of things as more than mere linguistic development. Asking the name of something demonstrates a mindfulness of the importance of everything and everyone we encounter in our daily lives—something we adults often ignore. At a certain point in our lives, we tend to ask for only the names of the exotic and fail to respond to much that we can already name. I know how to name injustice, poverty, abuse, racism, homelessness, homophobia and a host of other sins; but I usually pass them by without notice or engagement. My grandson’s mindfulness urges me to ask, “What’s that called?” and even, “What am I called?”
There is, of course, another question we hear very often since my grandson turned 2. It’s the question parents and grandparents find both enjoyable and, sometimes, exasperating:
“Let’s put on your shoes.”
“Because your Mom and Dad will be here soon to pick you up.”
“Because they are finished with work and want to go home.”
“Because they’re tired.”
“Because they’ve been at work all day.”
And there it is: the “just because” that signals either the end of my knowledge or the end of my patience. It may happen after six “whys” or 10. But it eventually occurs for all of us. Right after “just because” comes “oh,” the signal of acceptance. Perhaps it is the end of his interest, the end of his curiosity or the end of his faith in my ability to give an adequate answer. Yet I prefer to think of it as a recognition of the presence of mystery in our lives.
There is always something before which we stand wordless, explanation-less. It is not just something that Wikipedia has not yet covered. It is not just something that scientists have not yet explained but will very soon. It is mystery; the realization that there will always be a “just because” limit to our ability to explain. Whether we approach age 3 or 73, the gift of metanoia means that we human beings also see something bigger than we can grasp, something that gives our lives meaning.
Ryan LaHurd, grandfather of five, spent much of his career in Lutheran higher education, as an English professor at Thiel College, academic dean at Augsburg University, and president of Lenoir-Rhyne University. He retired in 2016 as president of the James S. Kemper Foundation. He and his wife, Carol Schersten LaHurd, are members of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago.
This article is excerpted from the October 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.