On Raising Savages: Let's Pretend
By Kris Green
My daughter climbs up onto my lap on the couch. With my back to the TV playing music, I hold her in one of my favorite spots to read and look out the window.
It’s important not only that my kids see me reading the Bible, but I want them to see me reading in general. Half the time I read, it’s at three in the morning when they’re asleep. Very aware of what they could be exposed to on television, TV is watched less and less as reading increases. If I’m on the couch, it’s with a book (usually a stack of three or four) in hand and a cup of coffee nearby.
As a parent, you get a feeling quickly that your kids are sponges absorbing everything around them. It’s not uncommon to see my son running through the kitchen and living room, my daughter, almost two, doing her best to run behind him, both proclaim loudly that they’re “exercising,” my daughter making up for the lack of syllables with a smile that tells she knows she’s cuter than she should be.
My daughter leans across me to look out the window. She looks at me. She reaches tentatively for my book, and I stop her mostly because I don’t want the hassle of finding my place again if the bookmark falls out.
I pull out my phone and on the screen is picture of her in her Elmo outfit as she and her brother Trunk-or-Treated at the church attached to his preschool.
“Who’s that?” I ask her.
She looks carefully at the screen and then, “Elmo!”
I open my photos and show a picture of his grandmother. “Who’s that?”
“Mimi!” she shouts.
“Tenny!” She points at the picture of her brother before that tiny, mighty finger directs me across the room to show him doing a puzzle on the floor.
In the same picture, she’s holding a purple pumpkin bucket and dressed head to toe in red. “Who’s that?”
She looks at me, “Elmo!”
My work sends me and a few of my people to help another store in the company. Each store sends a few associates. The group floods the store to get it ready to open in a few weeks. For my associates, they don’t know how much of this is political. You go in, talk to people who are important in the company and other people who have ambitions and aspirations of promotions. You put on a good face. You smile, firm handshake—walk like you know what you’re doing. You pretend.
I hate it. Every time I go, I hate it. I have quarterly meetings that I or the person directly under me must attend. I blow them off. Once I get the email in January of the dates of the meetings for the year, I put in for the days off with a vague reason for “family time.”
Most people hate meetings, but for me, it’s not the meeting. The meeting usually comes with information that can be helpful. It’s good facetime to get in front of people higher than my position and be memorable. It’s the politics. I dislike the game.
I sit in my car already seeing people go to the other store and I listen to a song that isn’t about God, but my mind has commandeered it as part of my prayers for the week and maybe the rest of the year. I mutter in a prayer, complaining that I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to pretend.
I walk up and see the crowd of people, at least a dozen who I know before turning to the right and finding a bathroom.
I’m an extrovert by trade, at least at work. When I invited a coworker to come to my house with her family and get to know my family, she remarked later, “You’re not funny at home.” I smiled and muttered something about how I don’t need to be.
I joke around at work because the whole mess seems a little absurd when you think about it. People walking around pretending that we’re doing something more important than we are. My humor is a coping mechanism as much as my extroversion is a management tool in my arsenal.
There’s also something more to it—I want to be real with who I am. It’s an inner drive that’s lasted and bounced around my brain for more than twenty years that I would rather be authentic than fake.
Sometimes it’s better to keep my mouth shut. But sometimes, I can’t.
I’ve learned that people engage with me because they like my genuine honesty. The people who work for me tell me they like my work ethic, but really, they like me. They like that I’m good for a conversation about anything. I joke around, but I’m also genuine. Something that, especially in a work environment, is hard to come by.
When I was moving up the company, one of the managers that pushed for me said, “Kris won’t do it the company way, but he’ll get more out of his people than any of the other managers around.”
In 1 Samuel, Hannah is in the temple praying for a son. She’s rocking back and forth and looks drunk. At least we think she looks drunk. Really, we don’t know. We just know the Priest Eli thinks she looks drunk.
Eli doesn’t seem to be that bad of a guy. He confronts Hannah, who explains she’s praying passionately. Something Eli either hasn’t seen or hasn’t done— or terribly, both. Eli gives her a blessing. Hannah goes home, lays with her husband, and boom—she’s pregnant.
In my morning reading, I wonder if Hannah got pregnant because she vowed to give her son back to the Lord or if it’s because of Eli’s blessing.
Hannah rocked back and forth not caring what other people thought, pleading in a tent with dirty knees and numbs fingers for God to give her a son. She didn’t care about what Eli or anyone else thought—she only cared what God thought and she poured her heart out to Him.
“When we go trick or treating, what do you say at the door?” I ask my son who’s in his underwear and a tank top.
We haven’t seen any kids outside yet. His dinosaur costume is going to heat up fast in the house, so we wait at my reading spot keeping a look out for kids dressed as all kinds of creatures and ghouls.
“Trick or Treat!” my son says.
My daughter mimics him, making the three words into one.
“When people give you candy, what do you say?”
Again, my daughter mirrors him. It’s how she’s learning.
“Good. And if they say, ‘Happy Halloween’?”
“Good. I’m going to need you to speak it louder than you’re normally comfortable with, okay?”
My son lowers his head but not his eyes. His eyes stay on me. Being shy is not a sickness, but sometimes it feels like it. It’s the first great hurt I’ve carried inside for my son.
“I need you to do it for your sister.”
My son cocks his head to the side. He’s thinking about it. He looks over at his sister who’s throwing a toy across the house already losing interest in the conversation. I like to imagine he’s wondering how he’s been put in charge of this little animal. But when they’re not at each other’s throats, he’s her protector.
“Natalie will do what you do. We need to be a good example for your sister.”
I don’t remember if I say, “Monkey see, monkey do”, but I’m thinking it. I’m thinking it and ironically enough, we’re in the spot I read so that they see and they, one day, will do.
Hannah has a son and names him Samuel. The Bible is kind of funny here, capturing a discussion between Hannah and her husband. She knows she has a debt to the Lord. She tells her husband, once the boy is weened, she’ll take him to the temple. The husband’s response shows almost how little has changed in a few thousand years, at least as far as men go: “Okay, do whatever.”
Samuel grows. In the middle of the night, God audibly calls out to Samuel. Sammy thinks it’s Eli, so he goes to him. There’s a back-and-forth in 1 Samuel 3 that was easily one of my favorite stories as a young boy. Even reflected in my favorite hymn, “Here I Am, Lord.”
Eli, recognizing it’s God’s voice, tells Samuel to the tell the Lord, “Your servant is listening.” Sammy does it. God’s message: “Eli and his son’s days are numbered. And, I have a job opening if you’re interested.”
God’s response is akin to when Bob Dylan sang in reference to Abraham sacrificing Isaac: “You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me coming, you better run!”
God doesn’t really seem to have a fault with Eli except that he has yet to wrangle in his sons from their wickedness. His sons, also priests, have taken more than their share from the people. Stealing from God and from man, their sins have grown so loud that people are talking, and a man of God in chapter two warns Eli his number is coming up soon.
Eli tries to tell his sons. I imagine a heartbreaking conversation for Eli as he tells them, “God will repay evil for evil.”
At the age of two or three, my son would say something, and we would ask, “Who said that?” Monkey see, monkey do. Now we don’t ask, knowing he’s taking it all in and doing something with it in that little head of his. He has his own ideas and thoughts. He’s clever in a way that shouldn’t be possible for a four-year-old.
He points at a frog skeleton toy that his grandfather brought him. He laughs before calling it evil.
I hate that word. More than that, I hate that my mother-in-law walks around the house calling the Halloween decorations that we scrutinize to make sure they’re not scary or weird (thank you, Grandpa) evil.
Now, a cobweb with a spider is not evil. A stupid little plastic frog skeleton toy isn’t any more evil than the small tombstone in the bathroom that says, “Beware.”
When I mention it to my mother-in-law, she’s agreeable. She doesn’t want to argue. She doesn’t want to fight. She agrees to my face and then still calls it evil.
I walk out of the bathroom at the new store. I see the group of managers and associates and recognize other people so I make my way for them. I click into my professional walk, eye-contact, firm handshake, and genuine enthusiasm because I like people. I see a manager I haven’t seen in years, and we laugh quickly together.
Last time we were together, he had me rolling on floor I was laughing so hard. The person hosting the meeting had to separate us. He kept muttering, “Is this even real?” I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Is this even real?” he shouts, and I die laughing again, because it’s not real. It’s all pretend.
The bosses tell us they want us to do things a certain way. Talk a certain way. It’s like corporate is Simon Says. You know the game, where every command must be given with the “Simon says,” before it, otherwise it’s a trap to get you to act silly without the explicit orders of Simon. Then you’re out.
The manager is a recovering alcoholic. He’s got four kids. He works long days like me. He’s told me in the past, some days it’s all he can do not to take a drink. The stress, the energy, the long drive home, and the drama of the workplace piles up inside. Then the company tells him, we need to do this or that, and he’s not the best person to execute it because he’s holding on by a thread.
What I love about him is that he’s honest. He is who he is. The pretenders don’t like him just like they don’t like me. But we find each other and make it through the day laughing and being real.
Samuel’s respected and it’s clear, once Eli’s out of the picture, Samuel is going to take his place.
A battle with the Philistines breaks out. Eli’s sons are killed. It’s not the first or last time that God has used an enemy of a “godly” person to bring correction. The Ark of the Covenant, which is the representation of God’s presence with his people, is captured. It’s a tough loss all around.
A runner tells Eli about his sons. Upon telling Eli that the Ark has been captured, Eli falls backward, breaks his neck, and dies.
Eli’s daughter-in-law, in the shock of her husband’s death, goes into labor. Knowing all these terrible things have happened, she calls her baby, Ichabod, which means “the glory has departed from Israel.” Everything has come to a head and the message God gave Samuel has been carried out.
For the better part of a week, I’ve wondered what Eli really did wrong. I mean, yes, he tried to wrangle in his sons. But why aren’t his sons accountable for their own actions? The Bible tells us that Eli died at the age of 98. How long had his sons been let loose to be wicked? I don’t know.
Maybe it’s dad-mode, but I’m wondering, is God really going to hold me accountable for the sins of my son and daughter?
Eli did some good things. Eli blessed Hannah. When he thought she was drunk, he rebuked her. Eli recognized God was calling Samuel. So, what was Eli’s big sin?
Eli knew his days were numbered. But we see multiple people whose days are numbered going to God and getting a pardon. Think of Nineveh. God is merciful. So maybe the question isn’t what Eli did, but what Eli didn’t do.
We read Eli rebuked his sons. He rebuked but didn’t take them out of office. He didn’t force them to repay. He just told them what he was supposed to tell them and let them be.
Then later, when Samuel is older, the people see Samuel’s sons are doing the same evil as Eli’s. The people’s outrage leads to them wanting a king. But surprisingly, there’s no outcry from the Divine against Samuel. There’s no warning by random men of God. There’s the sin and then the people asking for a King.
Maybe this is more Eli being a bad manager rather than a bad father? I imagine Eli pretended everything was okay. He went about his duties and his responsibilities as if nothing was wrong. He did the bare minimum of what he was supposed to but left it at that.
I wonder what the Lord would’ve done if Eli went into the temple like Hannah had. What if Eli had prayed so fervently, rocking back and forth, that people thought he was drunk asking God for help? What would God do if Eli said, “I can’t but you can. Help me!”? We’ll never know. Except there’s this one small thing… We know God is a faithful and loving God. Why wouldn’t he move heaven and earth for the cries of one of his people?
Years later, David would dance as the Ark was being brought into Jerusalem. He was making a scene. It says people saw his nakedness, so imagine some high kicks going on. When confronted he said, “I can be more undignified than this!” David cared more about what God thought than what people thought. Maybe this is why he’s called “a man after God’s own heart.”
We trick-or-treat. My son grows confident in saying, “Thank you.” He says it more than other things and that’s good enough for me. He says it to a neighbor who he has flat-out refused to talk to in the past.
But Halloween feels different. Maybe it’s the dinosaur costume or the promise of candy in the air. Maybe it’s something more, but he’s a little freer, especially after we drop off his mother and sister and keep going for another half an hour. Maybe he’s able to act a little freer? Maybe he’s able to pretend a little bit and get out of his shell. I don’t know. In the evening, I don’t question it. I just enjoy it.
“How was your Halloween?” I ask a coworker.
“Oh, I don’t celebrate it.” Then she flashes me a peace sign at an angle and says, “God-life.”
I groan inside. Halloween is called evil, but the thing I like about Halloween more than most holidays is we accept we’re pretending. In America, Easter is overshadowed by the Easter Bunny and Christmas is overshadowed by Santa. Halloween is just dressing up and pretending. In a weird cultural way, Halloween is more honest that way.
In a way, there’s no difference between me walking out of that bathroom at the new store than the ninja emerging with a plastic bucket hunting candy from the house across the street. We’re all playing make-believe.
As a family, we’re not doing Santa Claus with the kids. If you’re a parent and doing Santa, I don’t really care. There’s no judgment. My wife and I talked about it the first Christmas and decided we wanted to be 100 percent honest with our kids. We’re not doing the Easter bunny or anything so silly. For us, it’s not a vital aspect of the holiday, so why keep it?
It’s important for my family and I that our kids see us as being 100 percent honest with them. It’s important for us that our kids know they can come to us for the straight dope.
The only Santa decoration we have in the house is a small statue of him kneeling before the baby Jesus. It’s beautiful. But for me, it’s no different than the picture in my office of Jesus surrounded by superheroes saying, “And that’s how I saved the world!”
We’re in November now. We’re not going to talk about Santa, at least not yet. But now that my son is four, we know he’s going to ask about it. It’s coming. There are kids’ shows that he watches where Santa is talked about. He sees Santa as an extension of that fiction. Pretty soon, the kids at school are going to start talking about it. Then, we’ll have to have a talk.
I’ll take him out to lunch. We’ll talk about the other kids in his class. I’ll tell him the truth. “Other kids believe in Santa, but Santa’s not real. But here’s the catch, you can’t ruin it for other kids. Let them believe. Let them do their thing. Let’s pretend, but we know the truth.”
It’s not trying to make him feel superior or anything. It’s simply because we want them to know, we’re always going to be 100 percent straightforward with them. I don’t really believe that the Santa lie has any great evil attached to it. But there is a lurking fear as the kids get older and they start seeing the different lies of childhood, there’s a cynicism that comes from it. There’s also an unspoken doubt that if mom and dad lied about Santa and the Easter Bunny, did they lie about God? Childhood has enough magic in it that we don’t feel a need to cultivate more of it.
For my daughter, she can’t separate her identity from Elmo in the picture of her in her costume. She recognizes herself. She’s very aware in fact. She’ll point out babies and I’ll ask who else is a baby and she’ll pat her chest proudly. She knows she’s a baby. I’ll ask where people are and use their names. She’ll point them out. I’ll ask, “Where’s Natalie?” She’ll pat her chest. But with that picture, she insists in that picture, it’s Elmo.
She can’t pretend. I envy it. I love it. It’s genuine and sweet. There’s no guile. It’s just what it is. Sometimes I get down at work because it’s hard to separate myself from the work-version of who I am. How much of that version of me is me? Maybe it’s the same as how much of my daughter is Elmo?
We go to church. The worship music plays. I stand up even though I don’t want to. I want to sit. I want to wrestle. I want to cry out to God. Inside my heart, I do. But outside, I’m standing. I wonder, am I just pretending because I don’t want to look weird? Am I just going along to get along?
Sometimes life is about pretending. People put on makeup to look more attractive than they really are. People get plastic surgery to do the same. From the car you drive to the clothes you wear—you are sending out a message of who you are and how you want to be perceived. Social media is the glorified vision of who you are. It’s not real. At best, it’s digital plastic surgery. Sometimes, maybe it feels like most of the time, people don’t want the real you. They want the version of you that they’ve grown comfortable seeing you as.
It’s a commonly accepted fact that if you force a smile, you’ll start to be happy. If you pretend long enough, you’ll trick yourself into feeling it. C.S. Lewis and Timothy Keller both speak about loving people in their books. If you love people, even if you don’t feel it, eventually, feelings come. Feelings follow actions. But maybe that’s a topic for another time.
Maybe that’s what Eli was hoping for. If he was acting out the God-life enough, he would trick himself into feeling it. I don’t know that the story of Eli completely captures God’s feelings on the matter. Sometimes I feel like there’s more going on. If it’s just unaddressed sin, isn’t God dealing with that with all of us? Why strike down Eli and not Samuel?
Maybe Eli got so used to pretending that he forgot what really mattered. When Hannah was praying so passionately it looked as if she were drunk, Eli couldn’t tell it for as it was because his heart had never brushed up against such passion in his own faith.
I don’t want to be that way. I want my kids not to get the dad-version of me. I want them to get me. I don’t want the people who work for me to get the boss-version of me, but I want them to see me. I don’t want my wife to get the husband-version of me, but me. I don’t want God to get the Christian-version of me—because I know he sees so much more. I want God to get all of me.
Not that I’m even close to being what God wants for me. I mess up more than I care to share. My language is not always clean. My heart is not always pure. I lose my patience when the hurricane of my family barrage me when I’m in the office trying to write and think. I don’t have the grace for my close friendships that I should. It’s hard for me to let go of the pain in the past. Sometimes my sense of humor goes too far. There are times where I’m more comfortable rocking out to Eminem than Kirk Franklin. I want to be better, but often, I’m standing up during the church service because I don’t know what else to do.
Pretending is only going to get us so far. In church more than anywhere else, where the fake smile may give us a little more kick of happiness but if anything widens the expanse between us and the Divine. Pretending isn’t good enough for God. It’s not enough to go through the motions. It’s not enough to pretend. Wasn’t this the very argument Jesus had against the religious leaders of his day? “Stop going through the motions. Stop pretending. It’s time to go to God!”
Maybe all that God wants is a heart crying out to him. Maybe all God needs is: “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Maybe it’s time to stop pretending.