Just when you think it’s an ordinary day, wham! Life with children is never routine.
My older son is in preschool. He eats like most kids his age, but I’m not complaining. (Not today, anyway. He ate hummus for lunch!) He would prefer to subsist on sunflower butter sandwiches and milk, with sweets thrown in whenever he can get them. The only abnormal thing in that is the sunflower butter. We are a peanut-free house, but so are a lot of people these days. No biggie. We insist that he eats at least one bite of everything at dinner time before he announces, “I hate it… Thank you for the lovely meal, Mama. May I be excused?”
One bite of salad. One bite of applesauce. One bite of lasagna. One bite of carrots. The three- or four-bite ordeal usually takes less than a half-hour, so I count myself lucky. As a kid, I was capable of sitting at the table for over an hour to avoid tasting green beans. (Well, I think it was over an hour. Time went slower back then.)
Recently we had a breakthrough. He tried a bite of pork roast and declared that– wait for it– he loved it! Then he actually asked for seconds. It was incredible because for the past year, he had insisted that he didn’t like meat. The pediatrician assured me that a meat aversion was pretty normal. The texture is unappealing to many kids. As long as he ate a fair diet in other ways, a few bites of meat a week would provide enough iron. And so, with the exception of my “Tyrannosaurus Rexes Are Carnivores!” campaign, which was a total flop by the way, I made my peace with having a vegetarian toddler. And then when he shocked us all by actually asking for pork roast in the grocery store, I made a mental note that his vegetarian phase had passed.
This left me totally unprepared for what happened today. It’s inevitable. Just when I think the parenting job is pretty smooth sailing, expect a wave to appear out of nowhere.
We were flipping channels on television and saw a PBS cooking show. They had apparently taken a field trip to the farm on this episode. http://www.cookscountry.com/videos/Upscale-Meat-and-Potatoes/41088/ The host was standing in the butcher’s shop next to what I can only describe as enormous hanging beef carcasses. My son’s eyes grew big. “What’s that?” he asked. Can you guess what happened next?
A little while later, I wrestled the boys into their clothes, socks, shoes, and coats and we were headed out the door on grocery day. “Don’t you dare buy beef, Mama!” my son said. “It comes from a cow. Only cannibals eat beef.” What could I say? (I decided that now was not the time to explain the correct meaning of cannibal, which he incidentally pronounces as “cannon ball”.) In the most natural and laudable way, my son was recoiling at the cycle of killing-to-eat that is such an intrinsic part of life on this earth. When you stop to think about it, there is something deeply perverse about killing to eat, taking life to preserve life, but who thinks about that? It takes the fresh eyes of a child to see the conundrum.
How could I squash this noble instinct in my child? Not after all my hard work to get him to respect all forms of life: the plants in the garden, our pet cat, animals of all kinds. The lesson had sunk in after all. But going vegetarian? I was not ready for that. So here it was, the theological quandary that my preschooler had thrust upon me as we were on our way out the door. How can God sanction eating meat if he truly does love all of creation and all life is sacred?
What popped out of my mouth in that moment was the story of how Adam and Eve didn’t eat meat in the garden of Eden. Then, I admit, I got side-tracked and pointed out that if we wanted to stop eating meat, we’d need to eat all our vegetables to stay healthy.
At that moment my husband stepped into the fray from another room. “What do lions eat?” he asked. My son brightened up immediately. “And Tyrannosaurus rexes?” “But Papa, they don’t exist!” Suddenly, I remembered that the apostles ate fish. My son brightened again. He was on a roll now. “And God helped them catch it!” my son added. (He loves the story about how Jesus tells St. Peter to try once more and the nets nearly break with fish.) That clinched the argument for him. He had no more guilty qualms about eating meat today.
But the question was far from resolved in my own mind. If you think it has an easy answer, then you haven’t thought seriously about the question yet. As a Christian, I believe that the closest anyone can come to describing God with mere words is to talk about his love. God is radical, transcendent, all-encompassing love. He teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves and even to love our enemies. He says that not so much as a sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge (Matt 10:29). So how could the Son of God incarnate casually bless his apostles to catch fish? Or eat fish even after he was rose from the dead (Luke 24:43)? If my son gets around to asking me, I can only think to tell him that it was a condescension to our human weakness, to the way of the fallen world. And that “from the beginning it was not so (Matt 19:8).” Paradoxically, our loving God does not condemn us for killing in order to eat meat, even while he continues to love and care for the animals that we consume.
For now, I will continue to buy meat and vegetables as I always have, but I am not done thinking about the thorny questions that my son raised today on the way to the grocery store. And it is not the first or the last time that he has made me see things from an unexpected angle. Thank God for our children!