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Living with a jealous Father

"For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God." I was helping my 6-year-old with her religious education homework the other evening when we came across this verse, tucked away within the 10 Commandments. All these years, I've skimmed over it as if it was some residue from the old King James translation, a bit of quirky English we're stuck with.

Then, bam: I read it in plain English, as a parent, for the first time. Here is God's list of chores and expectations, but just when you're getting into a checklist frame-of-mind, He puts you on notice: He has issues with jealousy. Love. Exclusivity.

Like any loving parent, I thought.

Sometimes in the grocery store or in the narthex at church, my 4-year-old will drift off and hug the leg of another father. An amusing triangle immediately forms - first the other dad grins at me; then my son, sensing something awry, follows the leg up to see a stranger; then he sprints back to me as fast as if he was running from a fire.

I may be grinning, but scratch the surface and you'll find a fiercely jealous father.

The other day I stumbled upon my fifth-grade son, snuggled up on the couch, 200 pages into a novel twice that length.

In an age of screens and collapsing attention spans, I pontificated in my mind to an invisible audience, my boy is deep in a book. I smiled as my pride surged.

But then I noticed that the novel was a vapid best-seller for junior high kids penned in the last few years and published by Disney. My wrath was kindled. My heart rate soared. My kids deserve a full immersion in the classics, I pontificated anew to my invisible audience: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Carroll, L'Engle, Stevenson, Twain, London.

It was as if I had found my fifth-grader clinging to the leg of a stranger in the supermarket. A visceral jealousy - about exactly which authors my son spends time with - took over. All those hours in Disney's "Frozen" grip, I thought, when he could have been experiencing Tolkien's exquisite horizons.

I stepped into our family room where an old oak kneeler sits before our prayer corner. Rosaries hang on a hook next to an ornate candle before several beautiful icons and a crucifix.

"For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God." I saw a film of dust on the kneeler. I realized, in a flash, how infrequent my visits had been in recent months and how unacquainted my knees had become to the oak; how family prayer had become a casualty of our "busy" fall.

My entire home was shot through with the glory of God for a fleeting second. I saw everything - any book, tablet, movie, screen, game - that did not turn my children in some way toward Him as dross, counterfeit, simulacra of simulacra.

For a second, I glimpsed our home - our ecclesiola, our "little (domestic) church" - as a fragile raft in a roiling sea slicked with oil and noisome trash. I saw failure upon failure of my own jealousy - when I had stepped away from my Father and leaned against counterfeits. I wanted to run home.

Bach or Bieber? The Lord of the Rings or the Choose Your Own Adventure series? Family meals at the kitchen table or a family fragmented and on the road most evenings? The evening family rosary or the ennui of the iPhone and YouTube? A family outing to the confessional on Saturday afternoon or Christmas shopping?

I know that the answers to these questions are not to be found in a new set of resolutions I draft in a rush to change.

"People are not 'projects,'" after all, writes Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde in "Go Forth with Hearts on Fire." My kids are not projects. "Only our own deepening relationship with Him can spark a change in others," he writes.

The answers rest in the recesses of my own restless and inconstant heart. The answers wait to be uncovered on the dusty oak of that kneeler, in the stillness before Him who is jealous of all my love.

"Probe me, God, know my heart; try me, know my thoughts" (Ps 139:23).

I am grateful to an old friend, Rankin Wilbourne, whose sermon series on the Ten Commandments (online at pacificcrossroads.org) prompted this reflection.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's Delegate for Evangelization and Media.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015