Mixed blessings

It’s a blessing.

That’s the first and last thing to say about becoming a first-time grandfather, which happened to me a few weeks ago. But in between there’s quite a lot else that might be said.

Finley Caroline was born into our family with every working part working as designed. She has her father’s eyes, her mother’s nose, her grandmother’s beauty and her grandfather’s soul.

OK, I know she has her own soul, but I could wish for something to resemble me. As for the other grandparents, we’ll let them make their own claims.

Now, about Finley being a blessing. Preachers are not alone in saying these things, but we specialize in saying them. When we dedicate an infant in our church (or baptize one, as in some other churches), the pastor declares the child a blessing — a gift from God to the parents, to the church and to the world. Now, if there’s a blessing, there must be a blesser. If the blessing is a gift — which by definition a blessing is — then there must be a giver.

And there’s the rub.

If you’re not spiritually inclined, the appearance of the grandchild is a mere act of Nature. You may call her a blessing, but you mean little more by that than that you are happy to be one of the fortunate ones who has come along in the long chain of being and now have participated in two iterations of nature’s reproductive wonders that we call generations (from genes to generations by way of generativity). To call the child a blessing is to say no more than that you are one of the lucky ones who has tapped into the hidden processes of nature and has something to show for it.

In this way of thinking, those who have not had children (let alone grandchildren) are unfortunate. They have not succeeded in the mating game, had potent loins joined to fertile wombs, and seen cells unite and divide felicitously in order to bring about a new human to carry on their gene pool.

It sounds sterile, but it’s less stinging to talk about it this way than the next.

A common spiritual refrain attributes the blessing of birth to a direct act of God. In this model, God directs traffic at every stage: bidding certain people to fall in love, binding them in marital covenant, and picking the right sperm to win the race to the waiting egg. The participants go through the motions, but they are only agents of grace and vessels of blessing, not the real Power behind the power.

But to this, those who bear no children and see no grandchildren ask, why has God blessed some and not others? Does God love them more? Or are the bearing of children and the welcoming of grandchildren rewards for good behavior, which also must mean there is something wrong in the eyes of God with those who are not so blessed?

Theologians teach us to watch our words, so that they point to the truth without being sloppy or sappy. To call a (grand)child a blessing means at least to say that God is to be thanked more than our lucky stars or random genes. God acts in some mysterious way to create this life that is not ours alone to create and yet doesn’t happen without our help.

When I say that Finley is a blessing, I am simply aiming my gratitude toward the one unseen Power I can only truly love but never fully explain. I don’t mean a whole host of things about how or why God is blessing me so (I don’t know), or how or why God is not blessing others so (I don’t know that either).

But I know that a Finley kind of blessing is as painful to those who lack it as it is joyful to me in having it, and it makes me want to be more prudent with my pride and more sensitive to my friends.


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