A few years ago a friend of mine became a grandmother for the first time. She had waited a while for this to happen and took to it with delighted joy. She is now grandma to a four-year-old girl and her 16-month-old brother. Since the children live out of town, my friend has become a travelling grandma, driving three hours one way most weekends to be with them. She counts as nothing the hours logged in her car compared with the privilege of sharing her grandchildren’s lives.
On any given weekend she can be found crawling under tables to make forts, racing around trees playing tag, dressing dolls, or snuggled in bed with a child on either side as she reads, yet again, Goodnight Moon. Her grandchildren are still young, but a foundational relationship with their grandmother has been set. In her they find steadfast love, gentle presence and a champion who never fails to take delight in them.
For Mother’s Day this year the children’s mother crafted special cards for each of the children’s two grandmothers. The personalized cards consisted of a series of questions asked of the four-year-old about her Grandma and Nana and the results are as cute and funny as one would expect. When asked, for example, how old her Grandma was, the little girl thought she was probably 16 years old. Nana fared a little better: she was thought to be only 14.
However, the best responses came with the question, “What is it that Grandma/Nana says to you the most?” Grandma’s most frequent comment, as reported by the little girl, was “I love you.” Nana’s most repeated statement was declared to be a pragmatic: “Don’t knock your brother over.” Truth be told, the children’s Nana is equally as doting and wonderful as my friend is, but delightfully for us, in this instance, the practical came to the forefront.
It’s the juxtaposition of the two statements that we find funny. We identify all too easily with the two polarities represented: affirmation of unqualified love on one hand, and admonishment to good behaviour on the other. Having experienced both and said both, I’m sure, it encourages some interesting self-reflection. If the people in our lives were polled about what we say most often to them, what would the answers be? Are we high on the affirming, loving scale, or are our comments critical and disparaging? Do the people around us bask in our approval, or shrink from our judgment? Is it a loving gaze they encounter, or a disapproving one? It’s enlightening to consider the answers as we realize we might not always express the love we feel for those around us.
It’s even more enlightening when we take the question and apply it to our relationship with God. Our response to the simple question “What do I most often hear God saying to me?” can be revelatory of our deepest belief about the nature of God. In our prayer, our “conversations” with God, what do we hear God saying to us most frequently? Is it affirmation, “I love you?”; or is it an admonishment, “Don’t,” and a list of prohibitions. Do we feel we are held in God’s loving gaze, or more that we are being monitored for infractions?
I expect our response will often be that we hear the latter, the “don’t” comments. We have long had a theology that focused on behaviour more than the dispositions of the heart. As a result, for too many people, God is not a loving presence, but a strict taskmaster and a calculating judge who has to be obeyed and appeased in order for one to be welcomed, accepted or loved. God’s love has to be earned through good behaviour, and equally, can be lost through bad behaviour. This merit-based system has permeated our spirituality.
Yet it is surely more scriptural and truer to revelation to hold “I love you” as God’s most frequent comments to us. The Bible comes to us as God’s love story to humankind where God acts in history to form a people beloved of God. Steadfast, compassionate, merciful and kind: these are the attributes of God extolled by the prophets and revealed through God’s actions. They become incarnate in Christ and revealed in God’s words of blessing to Jesus: “This is my beloved in whom I am well pleased.” These words shape Jesus’ life, giving him the freedom to act as a child of God. Love is the starting point and all God’s actions flow from this affirmation.
What it would be like to live with that ringing in your ears! Truly Jesus invites us into the same realm of relationship with God that he knows. We come to it in the Spirit, where, given the courage to call God “Abba,” we too know ourselves to be the Beloved.
It begins with a declaration of love. A four-year-old offers us the insight, with a simple, beautiful question, “What does Grandma say to you most often?” and a simple, beautiful answer, “I love you.” Can we live in such a way that others might give that answer about us? Furthermore, can we believe in a God who loves us like a doting grandmother and gazing upon us, says the same thing? What might change for us if we truly were to believe that is so?
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.