A distinct and separate sense of self is the essential quality of relationship.
When my older son was in the fourth grade, he was involved in a production of a fairy tale called "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." He was to be one of the goats. As he was new to the school, he was rather proud of himself.
It was not an elaborate production. In fact, it wasn't really a play. It was more like a dramatic reading with skits instead of illustrations. Andy's class was going to perform their little production for the younger children in the school. It was during national reading week, and the production was a project of the librarian. The librarian at the school ran a wonderful library. The books were neatly arranged. There were attractive displays and bulletin boards. The library invited children in to discover all the wonderful things to be discovered in books and through reading.
The "Three Billy Goats Gruff" group practiced for weeks. They would be called out of class and go to the library to prepare. It felt special. Andy would come home every night and tell us about it. He was very excited, and very pleased with himself for being a goat. His mother was teaching in the same school, and she had been able to witness the progress, and see Andy's sense of accomplishment first hand. The latter, of course, was the most important.
The week of the production finally came. Two days before the performance, though, Andy got sick. He wasn't seriously ill, just a virus or something. But he had to miss the two days of school immediately before the performance. On the day before the performance, the librarian told Andy's mother that she would have to replace him because it was a rule that you couldn't be in the performance if you were not there on the day before. The rule itself was understandable. The only problem was that it had not been previously communicated to the children, which the librarian acknowledged. Andy was predictably upset by this development. He had counted so much on his role in "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." He was terribly disappointed. It broke my heart.
When the time came to put on their rendition of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," the announcement was made on the intercom for all students involved in the show to come to the library. Andy headed to the library not knowing what would happen. His mother saw him in the hall and asked him why he was going. "Well," he said, "she hasn't told me I'm not in it."
It was his finest hour. He had enough sense of himself to make the librarian deal with him in his own right. If she was going to replace him at the last minute, she would have to tell him herself. And I knew in that moment that he would indeed grow up and was in fact a long way down the road.
The great persons of faith in the Bible are notable because of their sense of self, enough sense of self so that even God has to deal with them in their own right. God called Noah to a purpose. Noah had enough sense of self to question God before he said yes. Abraham bargained with God for the safety of a city God had decided to destroy. Moses argued with God. So did Elijah and Jeremiah. Mary, before accepting the pivotal role God had planned for her in the salvation of the world, had her own questions for God. And, of course, Jesus had a strong enough relationship with God to call the entire plan of salvation into question. I don't think any of those bothered God one bit. A distinct and separate sense of self is the essential quality of relationship. To have enough sense of oneself to stand up even to God is what makes relationship possible. It is the very defining characteristic of faith, and it is the primary sign of growing up.
This week Andy takes another step along that road of growing up. He will graduate from high school. And his sense of self continues to be strong. Right now, of course, he is standing up primarily to his mother and me. That is all right. Because what it means is that just that much more potential for relationship exists. It means there is potential even for faith. It means we are all growing up.
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