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God with a Human Face by John C. Purdy


John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). God with a Human Face was published by Westminster/John Knox in l993 and is used by permission of the author, who also prepared the text for Religion Online.


Chapter 1: God is a Grown-up (Matt. 1:1-25; Luke 2:40)


Eduardo, a child of the Rio de Janeiro slums, stood looking over the city. He said to Robert Coles: "If I had a choice, to pick the way I'd die, I'd choose to be carried off by the wind over to the ocean. I'd be made clean twice before I saw His face." When the psychiatrist turned to the boy with a quizzical look, Eduardo said in a voice so quiet it was almost a whisper, "God's face" (Coles, The Moral Life of Children, 1986, p. 135). That ten-year-old Brazilian whispered the greatest of all hopes: that one might see the face of God.

The message of Christianity is that such hopes are not fancies: The human face of God is turned to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The Presbyterians declare in their Brief Statement of Faith: "We trust in Jesus Christ, fully human, fully God." The apostle Paul wrote: "For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). This book is about that face and the story it tells about God.

The story begins with Jesus' birth:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,"

which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matt. 1:18 - 25)

The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:40)

God acquired a human face in the same way you did: God arranged to be born into the world. The Creator slipped into Creation as a baby. But not an ordinary baby. Before the child's mother came together with her promised husband, she was found to be pregnant. The father of the child was not the man to whom Mary was engaged. Rather, the child was conceived in her by the Spirit of God. In a way beyond our comprehension, God arranged to be born of a woman without the agency of a man.

How innocent it sounds! "She was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit." Nobody got zapped, nobody got displaced. Mary was not raped by a demon, like the mother in Rosemary's Baby; nor was she seduced by a god, like Europa of Greek mythology. Nor was an otherwise ordinary fetus taken over, as it were, by a superior being. One day Mary was a young, inexperienced virgin; the next day she was pregnant with the Messiah.

If you find that outrageous, consider Joseph. How hard must it have been for him to accept the fact that his betrothed was pregnant - and not by him. But God had chosen wisely. Joseph was a righteous man, kind and gentle, patient, forgiving. Many men, in outraged masculine pride, would have kicked the woman out into the street. Most men would have allowed her to suffer the public disgrace she had apparently brought on herself. But Joseph was not compelled to do the "macho" thing. He set aside wounded pride and offended values, and planned to put a quiet end to the engagement.

Was Joseph merely shielding his own reputation? Was he thinking of the innocent child? Who knows? Let us rather suppose that God had chosen this couple with great foresight. Joseph was a model of restraint and compassion - a fit role model for a growing boy. Strong, yet tender - the sort of adoptive father who might help a boy to grow up feeling good about being male.

However, before Joseph could act on his own and arrange for a quiet annulment or divorce, something greater was asked of him. He had a dream. An angel of God appeared with a most remarkable message: "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

The whole enterprise suddenly was shot through with mystery. It is not uncommon in our day to know the sex of an unborn child. And many babies have names waiting for them when they are born; witness all the "juniors" in the world. But this baby had a remarkable genesis - he was conceived by the Spirit. And he had an equally remarkable destiny - he would save his people from their sins. Some dream!

When Joseph woke, he was faced with a momentous choice. Should he trust the dream as being more than a fantasy? If so, should he do what was asked? Should he let the marriage go forward, as though the child were his own?

Upon Joseph's choice everything now depended. Would the child be born to a single parent or to a stable couple? Would the child have a lineage, be a son of a son of David, or would he have to wonder where he came from? Would he be named Jesus, his people's savior? Or would some other name be given him - James or John, perhaps? All rested on the obedience of Joseph. God had entrusted the whole enterprise to the obedience of this one man. If Joseph was generous enough not to put Mary to public disgrace, would he be even more beneficent? Would he take her as wife and claim the child as his own?

Let neither pro-choice nor anti-abortion folks rush in to claim Joseph as patron saint. Let it be said on the side of anti-abortionists that from the moment of conception this baby had an identity, a name, and a destiny. Let it be said also that Joseph was given a choice. God did not zap Joseph any more than God zapped Mary; Joseph was free to continue with his plan to put Mary away and leave her to deal with the unborn child. Possibly she would have been driven to despair and would have sought an abortion. Other women have been driven to that solution by men who abandoned them. But Joseph could also choose to take Mary into his family as his wife; he could let the child be born as if it were his own.

"When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus." Joseph not only "did the right thing" by Mary, but also did not claim any sexual rights until after the baby had been born. He also followed the angel's command and named the child Jesus.

Joseph seems a bit unimaginative. He might have called the baby Jesus Emmanuel. For the storyteller informs us of an ancient prophecy about the birth of a son to a virgin. It was said by God through the prophet that the child's name should be Emmanuel, which means "God is with us." But Joseph was obedient to the heavenly dream; he did what he was told, no more, no less. The child was born and was named Jesus. In every way the son of Mary and Joseph was a wanted child.

God Knows Childhood

But Jesus was a child, not yet a man. God not only knows what it is like to be born, God also knows the mystery of childhood. God is a grown-up. God knows the secret way that leads from infancy through childhood and youth to maturity. All that is implied in the terse statement: "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor [grace] of God was upon him."

If this were an ordinary biography, we would insist upon knowing much, much more about Jesus' childhood. How is it possible to know a person unless one knows in some detail about his or her early years? For it is in infancy that the person is formed. In The Hurried Child (1981), psychologist David Elkind says that our favorite metaphors for childhood are the growing plant and the raw material. As a plant grows and develops from a seed, so a child follows a developmental path laid down in advance by nature. And as a lump of clay is shaped by the sculptor's fingers and then hardened in the heat of the kiln, so the child is shaped and toughened by the hand and furnace of circumstance. Between the dual actions of nature and nurture, the person is formed.

How did Jesus respond to the challenges of each stage of growth, we wonder? And what were the forces of circumstance and necessity that bore in on him at each stage?

"The child grew," we are told. Jesus successfully negotiated the infinite number of steps between babyhood and maturity. Do you remember from childhood the riddle of the frog and the well? If a frog falls into a well, so the riddle went, and with each jump covers half the distance remaining to the top, how many jumps will it take the frog to escape? An infinite number, of course. And if one asks how many steps lead from infancy to maturity, we have to say the same. We know that children grow up, just as frogs jump from wells. But we cannot chart the path with scientific and numerical exactness.

Tell me, if you know, just how many steps there are in the process by which the child proceeds from saying "mama" and "dada" to pronouncing "semiconductor" and "anthropomorphic." And how many learned responses lead from a baby's first cry to the singing of an operatic aria? And how does the toddler, who has difficulty putting one wooden block on top of another, over time learn to build a house with lumber, hammer, nails, saw, chisel, and plane?

Jesus managed to complete this complex, intricate, mostly mysterious process of growing up. From being a helpless baby he progressed to adulthood, where he was capable of holding down a job, getting married and having children(should he so choose),making and keeping friends, earning and spending and saving money, respecting confidences, theorizing about the origins of things, separating fancy from fact, getting angry without having to hurt others, caring for others without needing to possess them. In him both nature and nurture did their necessary work.

It all sounds so matter-of-fact. But how a child grows to responsible maturity is one of life's awesome mysteries. In her novella Good Will, Jane Smiley creates what seem ideal circumstances for the growth and development of a child. Bob and Liz Miller choose to raise their one child on a Pennsylvania farm. They do nearly everything for their own survival and nourishment: raise food, care for animals, sew, weave, hammer, can vegetables, cut ice from the pond, butcher, chop and burn their own wood. They have no car, no TV, no phone. Tommy works alongside both father and mother, sharing warmth and chores and conversation; he is the opposite of the "hurried child" that David Elkind worries so about. And yet, the Millers are finally driven from their Eden by the destructive behavior of their son toward a black schoolmate. When Tommy sets fire to the other child's house, the Millers must move to town and take up regular work to pay for the damages. Despite their careful horticulture, the twig was bent.

Unlike Tommy Miller, Jesus reacted positively to every demand. Scripture says that "the child ... became strong." Jesus evidently thrived on stress - physical stress, mental stress, moral stress. He was not bent, lamed, or shamed by what he experienced. Rather than being used up by stress, he used it to become stronger.

He grew up among the usual demands and strains on a child and youth: In his life there were bullies, thunderstorms, hungry times, illnesses, losses. He knew times of hunger as well as feasting, deserts as well as gardens, work as well as play. He saw sex and religion being peddled; he was no stranger to the outcast, the leper, the lame, the corrupt. He knew that the strong abuse the weak, politicians lie, men beat their wives, wives manipulate their husbands. He encountered occupying soldiers, rapacious tax collectors, venal public officials, frightened priests, thieving beggars.

Somehow on all of this Jesus thrived: He acquired the stamina for going days without food and water; he gained the courage to stand his ground when attacked by superior force. He learned to wait out storms, to be amused by the meddling of officials, to accept weakness in his friends. Although Jesus knew the helplessness of childhood, there was in him no self-pity. He knew nothing of the weakness of Tiny Tim in Dickens's Christmas Carol. When Bob Cratchit brings the little crippled boy home from church on Christmas, he says to his wife: "He told me, coming home, that he hoped people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see." Jesus learned sympathy for the lame, but not because he himself had been lamed by life.

Also, "the child ... [was] filled with wisdom." Jesus discovered that a fool and his money are soon parted, that the love of money is the root of many evils, that you cannot tell a book by its cover. He learned that power corrupts, that an army marches on its stomach, and that if you would teach a hungry man, first you had better feed him. He knew soon enough about fools' names and fools' faces always being seen in public places. He learned that sin and sickness are not always the two sides of the same coin, that the devil can quote scripture, that a smile sometimes is a mask for hate.

Wisdom is no rarer in children than in adults, but it is harder to detect. A good deal of wisdom consists in not showing off one's intelligence, and children are often too smart to appear to be wise. The Diary of Anne Frank appeals to generation after generation, not only because Anne was wise, but because her insights were kept secret. She comes to us, not as a child described by adults, but as herself. If Jesus had kept a diary, it might have been like that of Anne Frank - the record of one who learned to be discriminating in what she revealed.

And, finally, "the favor of God was upon him." It was evident to Jesus' contemporaries that he was one whom God loved and blessed.

In The Hurried Child, David Elkind marvels at what he calls "the invulnerables" - children who cope successfully with unusual stress. They exhibit these qualities, he says:

1. Social competence. Invulnerables seem at ease with peers and adults and make others at ease with them.

2. Impression management. Invulnerables are able to present themselves as appealing and charming....

3. Self-confidence. Such children have a sense of their own competence and ability to master stress situations. Accordingly, they see problems as a challenge rather than as evidence of their incompetence....

4. Independence. Invulnerables are independent and are not swayed by suggestion.

5. Achievement. Invulnerables are producers. .. . Many are exceptionally original and creative. (p. 181)

Jesus may well have seemed to his contemporaries to be one of Elkind's "invulnerables." That is what "the favor of God" suggests.

Life is not always fair; some children seem to be favored by God, some not much favored. Chris Zajac, the fifth-grade teacher in Tracy Kidder's Among Schoolchildren (1989) knows both kinds. Among the minority children in her class are Judith and Clarence. Judith is pretty, friendly, responsible, intelligent. When she is not doing top-quality work in class, Judith works on her novel, a feminist tale called Shana and the Warriors. After reading an essay that Judith wrote about a certain sadness shared with her mother, Chris says to herself: "This girl is about as mature as I am. . . . And smarter" (p. 86). But then there is Clarence, who proves so disruptive Chris has to accede to his being sent to a special school. "Chris gazed at the boy, looking for words that might improve that empty feeling she had about him, that he was like a calendar with no numbers on it, a future without hope, already determined" (p. 158).

But Jesus "grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him." He escaped the crippling of Tiny Tim, the wasted anger of Clarence, the self-destruction of Tommy Miller. Like Anne and Judith, he thrived on challenge. He made his way surely and successfully along the narrow bridge that leads from infancy to maturity.

Our story describes that bridge in a very sketchy way; we have only the barest outline of it - growth, strength, wisdom, favor - nothing more. We have to fill in that outline with what we know about childhood. But the only childhood truly accessible to us is our own. The human face of God who lived a childhood looks back at us from the mirror of memory.

What were the critical events in your growing up? What were the defining moments? Listen to a fourteen-year-old, the first white youth to speak to a black youth in one of Atlanta's desegregated schools:

"I didn't want any part of them here. They belong with their own, and we belong with our own - that's what we all said. Then those two kids came here, and they had a tough time. They were all by themselves. The school had to get police protection for them. We didn't want them, and they knew it. But we told them so, in case they were slow to get the message. I didn't hold back, no more than anyone else. I said, 'Go, nigger, go,' with all the others. I meant it. But after a few weeks, I began to see a kid, not a nigger - a guy who knew how to smile when it was rough going, and who walked straight and tall, and was polite. I told my parents, 'It's a real shame that someone like him has to pay for the trouble caused by all those federal judges.'

"Then it happened. I saw a few people cuss at him. 'The dirty nigger,' they kept on calling him, and soon they were pushing him in a corner, and it looked like trouble, bad trouble. I went over and broke it up. I said, 'Hey, cut it out.' They all looked at me as if I was crazy, my white buddies and the nigger, too. But my buddies stopped, and the nigger left. Before he left, though, I spoke to him. I didn't mean to, actually! It just came out of my mouth. I was surprised to hear the words myself: 'I'm sorry.' As soon as he was gone, my friend gave it to me: 'What do you mean, "I'm sorry"!' I didn't know what to say. I was as silent as the nigger they stopped. After a few minutes, we all went to basketball practice. That was the strangest moment of my life." (pp. 27 - 28)

Later on he confided to Robert Coles: "Something in me just drew the line, and something in me began to change, I think."

When did something in you draw a line? When did you discover that God is a grown-up? that God does not want you to remain forever a child?

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