This morning I took Judah for a four-mile hike through the Placerita Canyon Nature Area just a few miles east of The Master’s College where we live and serve. For my birthday last month Cindi and her mom bought me a Kelty baby carrier, an aluminum-structured pack made for hiking and weighing only six pounds (which almost makes up for Judah’s hefty thirty-five). I probably only have a few months before he outgrows the forty-pound weight limit, though I’ll probably push it to fifty if my knees and back hold up (and if Judah still fits).
You never know what a particular hike might hold, and though I’d done another hike in the area, this one was new to me. It’s a very simple and beautiful trail, winding through the canyon as it follows a stream running down from the top of the mountains in the Angeles National Forest just to the south. The trail is well-maintained, the elevation gain is only three hundred feet, and the weather today was sunny and seventy, drawing out lots of couples and families (though as a male and a father I’m proud to say that Judah and I had the most hardcore baby carrier of anyone we saw).
We were on the trail for two hours, criss-crossing the stream at various points and stopping frequently so I could collect small rocks for Judah to throw into the water. We greeted the passersby, chatted within the confines of Judah’s vocabulary, and enjoyed the large number of happy dogs out with their owners. Judah identified each with a high-pitched “Puppy-dog!” and sometimes even distinguished between “Big puppy-dog!” and “Little puppy-dog!” We had a little drama right after we had crossed the stream at one point because I was handing Judah a rock to throw in and failed to notice a lower-lying branch approaching. I noticed it when I glanced behind me and saw his head bent back and to the right as he tried to avoid it. He got some tiny scratches on his cheek and head, but played it tough overall. This is when I wised up and turned my Yankee visor around so I could actually have some peripheral vision overhead. That combined with Judah verbally identifying every branch hanging below ten feet for the next ten minutes enabled us to avoid any more collisions.
We turned around and headed back at the two-mile mark, moving more quickly since it was downhill and we’d already seen the scenery. On the return trip I only stopped periodically to gather handfulls of small rocks so I could hand them to Judah at various points alongside the water without bending down every couple minutes. This time the stream was on our right and the closest canyon wall was on our left. Within fifteen minutes of turning around, I glanced to the left as we walked next to a choppy wall of rock and noticed a small lizard moving haltingly five feet away. We hadn’t yet seen a lizard on the hike, so I stopped, aimed the backpack so Judah could get a good look, pointed right at it, and asked, “Judah, that’s a lizard. Do you see the lizard? Yes or no?” He confirmed that he did: “Yeth or no? Yeth!” We admired it for twenty or thirty seconds and began moving on.
As we walked away, Judah predictably asked with an air of childlike hope, “Lizard? Lizard go?” He wanted to see another one. I didn’t look back at him, but I’m sure he had both hands out and open like he always does when he’s asking where something went and hoping to see it again. “The lizard is all gone, buddy,” I told him. “Lizard?” he asked again.
There were a number of ways to answer his question. The easiest would’ve been the general, non-committal approach: “The lizard is gone, buddy. Maybe we’ll see another one later.” For one thing, his request to see another lizard was different than his constant requests to throw more rocks in the water. I can bend down, pick up a rock, and give it to him to throw anytime. But I can’t make another lizard appear, especially since we were walking briskly instead of standing around and eyeing sun-baked rocks searching for one. Yet I found myself saying, “The lizard is gone, buddy, but God will bring us another one if we ask Him to, OK? Let’s ask Him to show us another lizard, and He’ll show us one before we finish. I don’t know when, but God will bring us one.” So as I kept walking I honestly asked the Lord to show us another lizard before our hike was over.
It wasn’t a ploy to teach my son about how God answers prayer. He’s two and wouldn’t have remembered. It wasn’t a strategic plan to make him feel better while knowing that he would forget about it anyway. That would’ve been manipulative and deceptive. And it wasn’t a concerted effort to say something that would make me feel good about my self-perceived spirituality. That’s downright shallow and insecure (I’m not above that; it just wasn’t my motivation in this particular instance). Rather, it was just what the Spirit of God produced in me in that moment, to no credit of my own. I thought, “This precious little boy just saw a remarkable little creature made by God, and even though his curiosity and attention-span are short-lived, his fascination is genuine. Now we’re moving on, and he wants to see another one because he’s excited about it. I know that God would love to show my little guy another lizard. So I’ll ask Him to. And I know He will. The Bible says that He will.”
For the next few minutes, as we kept walking, I thought a bit more about my promise to Judah that God would bring us another lizard (the same way we all think about the particular prayers we pray and the amount of faith we have and how we think God will respond). I turned it over in my mind a bit, but not a whole lot. I just thought, “I know God is going to show my little guy another lizard. He loves children, He loves when we are amazed at what He has made, and this is entirely according to His will. There’s no reason why He wouldn’t do this.”
Judah didn’t ask about the lizard anymore, and it gradually faded from my memory, too. Periodically it would flash to mind and I would glance around at the trail and the nearest canyon walls, but within fifteen or twenty minutes, it ceased coming to mind.
As we drew closer to the Nature Area where we had started the hike, I took Judah off my back and we walked down to the stream so he could throw some more rocks in and splash around if he wanted. He threw a few in, and soon I was picking up canteloupe-sized rocks and chucking them into the air for maximum splash effect. We’d count to three, I’d do a two-handed, back-wrenching, granny-shot hoist, and we’d wait for the explosion. Upon impact, Judah would make some of the funniest all-out excited-faces that I’ve seen. After awhile I took his shoes off and let him step in the water several times, but each time he would get a concerned look on his face and say “Cold?” So I sat down on a small rock, put his shoes back on, and sat him down next to me as we took alternating bites of the banana I had brought for our snack. I capped off our streamside stop by having him throw in the small pile of rocks I had dumped beside the water. I placed him in the carrier, put it on my back, and hopped on the trail for our final few minutes before arriving back at the parking lot.
As we walked through the several hundred feet of tree-covered picnic area toward the small wooden bridge that would take us across the stream for the last time and into the parking area, Judah kept talking about the water to our right and the rocks that he knew could potentially be thrown into that water. I told him we’d stop one more time at the base of the bridge, the same place we had stopped at the beginning of our hike when he first discovered the joy of throwing gumball-sized rocks into a stream from a high-riding baby backpack. We approached the bridge and walked around it on the left side, down the ten-foot dirt slope to the foot of the stream. There weren’t any good-sized rocks at our feet, so I turned left and walked about ten feet up the stream where I saw some lying around.
I bent down next to a log to pick out a few rocks, and as I rose to stand up, three feet to my right at the end of the log I noticed a lizard sitting stock-still in the noonday sun, clear as day, facing me like he was waiting for us to arrive.
“Judah, Judah, look! It’s a lizard! Look down there! God brought us the lizard we prayed for! Judah, do you see the lizard? Yes or no?”
“Yeth or no? Yeth!”
As we watched and marveled, I walked around the log to give Judah the best look he could get. Then another lizard poked his head up from the end of the log and stood there for a moment before scampering into the shadows beneath. Less than one hundred feet and one minute from the end of our hike, after it had ceased from my mind for a good thirty minutes, without any searching or manipulation or desperation but only in answer to the genuine desire of a child and the genuine prayer of a father, God brought us two lizards to see. They were just sitting there waiting for us. “Thank you, Father. Judah, we need to say thank you to God for the lizards. Can you say, ‘Thank You, God’?'”
I continued explaining to Judah what we had just seen and what God had done, I finished picking up the rocks and had him throw them in, and we left the water’s edge and walked back up to the bridge. We crossed the stream for the last time, got in the car, and drove home. Judah sat in his carseat drinking water from his sippy cup and looking at daddy in the rearview mirror. Daddy sat in the front driving and wondering — not wondering in the sense of confusion, but wondering in the sense of wonder. God is a wonderful Father.
There’s a myriad of different angles from which to view this story theologically. And there is a time and a place for each of those angles. But this is not a time for scrutinizing the labrynth of providence and prayer, wondering why there is a sharp turn here, a glass wall there, and a dead end around the corner. This is a time to stand tall and to lift up your eyes beyond the walls of the labrynth and to see that above it all, God is good and tender-hearted, He happily gives good gifts to His children, and He answers the prayers of the least of them.
All my son wanted was to see a lizard. All his daddy did is ask and believe. And all his Father did is send two, in the most remarkable, memorable, climactic way possible.
Did Judah lie awake tonight marveling at how God answered his daddy’s prayer to send another lizard so that we could enjoy what He has made? Probably not. Fifteen years from now will Judah remember that on one particular Saturday back in 2008 God did something very special that shows how good He is? No — only the story I tell him. Will the manifest providence of God on this specific day serve as the cornerstone for his potential conscious belief in divine sovereignty in years to come? I doubt it — he’s currently only two years old.
Judah won’t remember this day. Obviously it’s these kinds of experiences and parental interpretations over the years that help shape a worldview with God at the center, but who knows what specific occasions he’ll remember. However, the memory of today — bottling it up and taking it with us — is not what’s most important. The memory is simply a shadow. But the reality is that God is good, that He is so kind to His children, and that He answers prayer in blatant and pointed ways when we simply ask.
Sometimes in the highly-theological circles in which I live and serve, our demand for extreme theological nuance accidently fosters in us an inability (or unwillingness) to believe in the basic goodness of God and the simple promises of His Word. We turn the path of knowing and enjoying God into an obstacle course — into a labrynth. We dissect God and His ways, but we don’t enjoy Him.
This is not to minimize truth, theology, biblical precision, or the life of the mind. Meditating on God and considering His ways is the path to God-centered enjoyment and true worship. Everything we think and say and enjoy about God must be biblical or we are living a lie. But these are not just mental activities. We are children of a real Father who is so wonderful that He sends lizards scurrying around to bask on logs at perfect times so that little children can look and point and smile and say “Lizard!”
This afternoon I told this story to Cindi and our friend Beth. I told them that I hope I will make these same types of biblical promises to Judah in years to come, when greater things hang in the balance and the test of faith is stronger. I hope that my confidence in the goodness and faithfulness of God will only grow.
There are a lot of legacies a dad can leave his son. But tonight, I just hope that Judah will grow up knowing that his daddy has a wonderful Father.