“We’re all gonna die.”
— Jesus (almost constantly)
My son turns 2 in a few days, and watching his height, waistline (go easy on the sweet potato fries!) and vocabulary balloon far past my existential readiness for him to grow up and ask me why our car has to be so embarrassingly out-of-date, I’m reminded of a Jerry Seinfeld interview where he casually mentioned (to the utter delight of the secular priest of my midday lunch, Terry Gross) that all children are here to replace their parents.
“But, I’m totally not ready yet, buddy!”
— Jesus praying to God in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was crucified
As I inch dangerously close to my mid-30s with nothing but two overpriced masters degrees I rub together to keep my family warm in the middle of the night, I occasionally grow weary of apologizing for my rather persistent inability to “provide” for my family. This is only growing more difficult for me in the wake of Humana’s (our last remaining marketplace insurance provider in the Knoxville, Tenn., area) cessation of my family’s health coverage in 2018. A coverage my aforementioned 2-year-old consistently depends upon every time he runs head-first into my dining room table (HEY BUDDY! STANDING ON TOP OF THE DOG IS NOT APPROPRIATE, THAT’S WHAT RICKETY KITCHEN STOOLS ARE FOR!)
One of the stubborn things about growing up is that, while we grow out of embarrassing, backward and unhelpful hobbies and habits (I’m looking at you, DMB concert filled with white people in dreds), we have this way of almost immediately filling up that secretly-shameful-hobby-sized hole in our hearts with something more currently embarrassing. For me, I grew up secretly playing with my mom’s Barbies from the ’70s and listening religiously (that was kind of the point) to Steven Curtis Chapman and Bruce Hornsby & the Range while pretending to be into Hip-Hop (and when I say “Hip-Hop” I mean artists who have stood the test of time, like Silkk da Shocka and Master P*).
*Quick aside: Because peer pressure is real (just maybe not always in the Nancy Reagan SAY NO TO DRUGS sense of the word), I once “borrowed” (read: kept forever without repaying or saying what I was going to do with it) $20 from my sweet grandmother to procure Master P.’s 1998 Smash-Hit Da Last Don. AND I REGRET EVERYTHING BUT LISTENING TO “LET MY 9 GET ‘EM” ON CONSTANT LOOP IN THE BACK OF MY GRANDMOTHER’S MAROON LINCOLN TOWN CAR ON THE WAY HOME.
Nowadays, I am regretfully enthralled by HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” where The Gaines family or, for those of us whose breath is forcibly removed from our lungs each week by yet another bedroom filled with shiplap, Chip and Jo renovate homes in Waco, Texas, for bored white people (both viewing from home and appearing on screen). Without fail, after watching 45 minutes of Joanna Gaines explain why the interior of this week’s home looks almost identical to the interior of last week’s home, I find myself pulling up real estate listings on my computer, or mentally renovating my ancient hallway bathroom, or thinking about how maybe it’s time to replace the dirty vinyl siding on the outside of my 100-year-old house, or how I’m really owed a master bathroom with double sinks, or how I can, thanks to the aforementioned boredom and 15 minutes of searching on the Internet, find out how much you paid for your house as a way of sizing up where I stand in the great race toward dying with the most stuff.
All because what filled the space Master P. left behind is this rather pernicious idea that one’s ability to pay for something(s) they don’t need is the only morality needed to make the decision.
Here’s what I mean:
If you are in poverty either because of generational and systemic inequality or because you studied the humanities like a dummy, paying extra for cigarettes, tattoos, shrimp on sale at Kroger and new tennis shoes is an issue of national interest.
Words like should get indignantly thrown around at this point. Like, “You should choose to pay for health insurance instead of a new iPhone like the rest of us.”
However, if you are a person of means, spending $500,000 converting a dilapidated farm house in Waco (where the average home values are about one-third of this) into what amounts to a livable Urban Outfitters is quality, wholesome, family-friendly entertainment that all of us aspire to duplicate in our own shiplapped open-concept bonus rooms.
Words like can get passively employed at this point. Like, “I’m glad I can finally upgrade to granite counter tops in this kitchen, the formica was KILLING ME.”
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
— Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
What fills the nooks and crannies of my 32-year-old heart is the prevailing understanding that if I have enough money I never have to explain myself, my choices, my renovations, my weekend plans, my preferences, my car(s), my beliefs, my politics, and my son’s exhausting extra-curricular calendar to anyone, ever.
And, If I lack the means to “give my son everything he deserves,” (read: Disney, at least three times before middle school, and one of those vans where he watches TV every time we have to run out to the store for milk) I have to spend the rest of my life apologizing and explaining and defending who I am, why I am and what I am to everyone looking on from the cheap seats of my existence.
This only gets worse if you’re religious in America, because for most of us we grew up with the understanding that God “blesses” the faithful in really tangible, monetary expressions of divine favor that typically result in having more bedrooms than people in your family. God blesses people constantly with mundane conveniences like parking spaces, found keys, survived common colds, as well as longer lasting rewards for longer lasting faithfulness like good paying jobs with health insurance and 401(K)s, or spouses, or healthy children, or a nice house in a good school zone.
The odd thing about this kind of blessing is that (from my end at least) it appears to have a generational quality to it, in that most of the people who came from parents blessed by this God and this God’s favor, seemingly kept going to good schools, kept having exotic vacations, kept getting good jobs, kept having healthy kids, and kept repeating the whole blessed process again and again (and here’s where things get tricky for me as someone whose spent too much time thinking about it) …
… independent of whether or not they persisted believing in this God.
As a straight, Caucasian, middle-class male who has chosen to tether my and my family’s financial well-being to the practice of the Christian faith professionally, I can’t tell you how terrifying it is to come face-to-face with the fact that God’s “blessing” (however you interpret it) might not mean giving my son any of the things I always thought I would if I was faithful to this God. I have this persistent fear that when my son replaces me (because of my lack of faithfulness and STEM education), I’ll have nothing to pass on to him. That my stubborn refusal to believe in the God I grew up hoping would reward me for believing, will not only damn my own halting efforts at retirement, but his as well.
I fear that my indignant belief both in a God who has a preferential option for oppressed people, as well as the unpopular idea that churches often participate in the perpetuity of this oppression when they never ask if they “should” spend millions on new building projects (as just one example) in a city where there isn’t enough affordable or transitional housing for people who need a place to sleep, will damn my own son’s efforts at providing safe housing for his family.
I fear that my strident and unyielding commitment to preaching, writing, talking and living into a faith that is as stooped, crumbly and moss-covered as my modest home’s foundation will damn my own son’s efforts at hopefully, optimistically and buoyantly believing that the world isn’t just a tragic loop of generational poverty and generational wealth determined by the accident of one’s birth.
I want to believe that God actually has as much to say to those of us able to constantly upgrade our lives as God does to those of us who can’t, but this belief is unpopular, and heavy, and often unemployed when it’s aired publicly. Leaving those of us attempting to desperately cling to this faith in the face of mounting bills and uncertainties and confused stares from the blessed and existentially stable among us, with the constant question of whether or not God has abandoned us, or that we have abandoned God.
As Master P put it almost two decades ago, sometimes you just gotta “get yo Paper,” and I totally get that part of growing up and recognizing your place in the cosmos as a dad, and a spouse and a provider means swallowing your convictions for the money, but I’m just not ready yet. Even if it’s wrong, and dumb, and shortsighted, I want to be able to at least give my son a generational advantage in believing that the resurrection was something more than just an opportunity to wear pastel sweater vests in a large and poorly conditioned room with blessed and appropriately dressed middle class white people.
I want him to at least receive the gift that comes from being a part of a family and a community of people who practice the ancient art of (sometimes foolishly) depending upon a divine force rather than the invisible hand of the stock market for worth, direction, hope and stability.
Put simply, when my son replaces me, I want him to believe in a God that believes in him, even if the dollar amount in his savings account begs to differ. Because if he does then, that will mean that at some point in my life, I will have believed it also.
Which would be quite the miracle.