“I don’t love you,” my little three-year-old son said this morning at daily mass, looking up at me, his eyes wide and open, his expression clear and bright. It was a statement of resolute fact, not vindictive. He shook his head slowly, for emphasis. “I don’t love you.”
Then it became more urgent. The sweeps of his head quickened, and a smile crept over his face, causing his wide eyes to furrow into a squint, tiny little creases appearing at the corners. “I…. don’t love you!” He whispered, hissing a bit at the end. “Yes,” he seemed to be thinking, it is fun to say this.
This “I don’t love you” game was standard fare for the past couple of weeks. Children say plenty of hilarious things. In fact, we were grateful just to hear him stringing together complete sentences. This little boy was behind in speech for his age. I might have winced, but I would have even accepted mild profanity if it were contained in a phrase, out of sheer relief of hearing him communicate. For nearly a year, I’d needed an older brother to interpret his peculiar language.
He continued to shake his head, smile, and whisper his statement of non love. He turned to a brother, to see whether he would get any mileage from telling him the same thing. Big brother was only interested in seeing how much he could stir up the baby.
For the passing instant, his “I don’t” was genuine. He meant it — without guile, but he meant it all the same. Wisdom and age offered the knowledge of another reality he had yet to grasp.
As a father, I could look past the “disobedience” because I understood what a tiny, simple, innocent child he is. In fact, I loved his innocence. I loved him deeply because of his innocence. I celebrated the freedom he enjoyed — to speak his mind; to say silly or even stupid-sounding things; to act a fool; to mistake.
“I don’t love you, daddy.” And then, following the Consecration, we rose from our kneelers and stood, to pray the Our Father. The little boy, who was surrounded by my body and arms while we knelt in prayer, who, as he spoke of not loving me, would reach out and touch and grab me the entire time, tugging on my beard, tussling my balding hair, was now standing far below the tower of my frame. Now there was a need for him to be lifted up — a distance that he could not bridge without my assistance.
And he, now on his feet, recognizing the change in posture, looked up toward me, and reached out his arms, his eyes speaking this time: pick me up, daddy. It’s time to pick me up now. Pick me up. I am ready. I love you. Pick me up.
God knows our hearts, just as I knew that this precious boy never changed his mind. He just spoke silliness. I felt foolish for the times and the ways that I had smiled at God, acted a child, and casually tossed my rejection at him, while knowing how false I was.
God might chuckle to Himself, waiting for me to appreciate the distance of our relationship; waiting for me to reach out; waiting for me to manifest my expectation that He lift me up; loving me beyond measurable fullness, celebrating my freedom all the while.
[NOTE: Please, I’d really like to go to Beer Camp. If you can spare a moment, would you please vote for me?]