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This morning our family of four had cereal and bile for breakfast. Here, in the typically random order of family feuds, was the menu:
· Who had not changed the kitty litter · Who had not cleaned her room · Who had not practiced the piano · Who had not participatedhappilyin the family yard-work project · And, of course, whose attitude stunk Actually that is only what my wife and I were serving up from our side of the table. On the other side, our thirteen- and fifteen-year-old daughters were slinging a mean hash of their own.
· Who could not stop harassing innocent children · Who had always favored the other child · Who needed serious therapy for dirty-laundry fixation Things got louder and a cereal box was slammed on the table. One daughter retreated into an eye-rolling "I give up on this family." The other ejected herself from the room. Mercifully, our weekday breakfast is only an eight-minute affair and no one was injured because the bus came, as usual, at 7:10. We did not stand at the door and kiss them good-bye as we always do. We sat at the table and they left in contempt without closing the door behind them. I took a bitter sip of coffee and felt like a toad. (I was the cereal slammer.) I could not even commiserate with my wife. The night before I had insisted it was time for one of our famous family conferences where the law would be laid down. Pam had agreed things were out of control, but, she suggested, that likely was because we were not in control. I had been preoccupied with church work, she reminded me, and out of town a lot; she had been preoccupied with her business and gone more than usual. If we wanted the kids to get back on track, she said, we’d better get our priorities back in line. We were the parents. We had to restore some calm to the family system and not make the kids the "problem." I sighed heavily. "I love how you've analyzed the situation," I said, "to the point where these kids aren't accountable and it's really our fault." I got up and left with a hugely passive-aggressive shrug. "Fine," I said, "then we'll do nothing. Have it your way." But there I sat, having provoked my family conference anyway. I heard an echo of my own words a moment earlier. In the middle of that pitched argument, our older daughter had come to tears and I had said, "Oh, that's greatjust burst into tears when you don't have anything else to say for yourself. I wish I could just cry like that!" Maybe I spoke truer than I knew. I hate it when I have to admit that, despite my righteous indignation, I am part of the problem. I like my anger clean and simple. If my kids are out of line, I want them to shape up. I don't want to fool with the bigger picture because, of course, that is the picture I show up in. I am part of a whole generation of largely boomer parents who want the privileges and joys of parenthoodnamely, children who grow beautifully into adolescence and beyondwithout taking the difficult responsibilities of being an adult. We all want our children to shape up without first looking at the shape of our own lives. We want them to pitch in and take their part in the life of the family, even though we're almost never home. We want them to stay free of drugs and alcohol, when they can see what dominates our adult parties. We stand back, bewildered by the young adults our children are becoming, when we have not taken the time to know them and to guide them, when we have not had the courage to set the boundaries and make the demands that authenticate love. In our frustration we careen wildly between rash punishment and abdication.
Something better requires self-examination and, more, an actual willingness to change. If we love our kids enough to say, "No, you're not going there tonight," it means that we must be prepared to stay home and help make something better happen. It's just easier to complain in hackneyed terms about "kids these days," as we head out the door for the evening we had planned. It takes inner, adult-style maturity to look within ourselves and ask, "How am I contributing to this problem"in our families and in our communities. We live more and more in a culture of spiritual immaturity that teaches us to say, "We have a problem and you must change!" I left breakfast and went to work, where I promptly rearranged my day's calendar. "3:30Be home when kids arrive," I wrote. If I needed to make some changes and give these kids my time, I'd better start today.
I met them at the door, reclaimed the morning's lost kiss, and said, "Sorry about breakfast." My fifteen-year-old tucked the apology in her pocket and said with an impish smile, "Don't worrry about it, Dad. You're so obnoxious we don't even listen anymore." My heart leapt up. Everything was back to normal.
Grace on the Rack
I haaaaave been asked as a father to do many things with my two daughters. So when my wife asked me to take the girls dress shopping for new fall dresses, I innocently agreed. How bad could it be?
Actually, my girls weren't girls anymoreMaggie was thirteen and Sharon was elevenand my failure to comprehend this was the root of all suffering. As we riffled through the first rack of fall offerings, Sharon paused to observe, "Dad, you've never taken us dress shopping, Mom always does. It feels . . . funny." I arched my eyebrows and she quickly added, "But nice. I like it." I mistakenly took this as a compliment.
My second mistake was to make a suggestion. I held up a pretty print dress for Maggie's opinion. Her eyes raked the dress disdainfully, as if I had held up a dead animal, and she moved toward the dresses laden with zippers and chains. Meanwhile, a young salesclerk whisked Sharon off to look for the perfect dress with a glance that said, "Let's get away from your silly old father. I know the perfect look for you!" I held up my hand and tried to call out, "WaitI know she looks older, but she's only eleven." They were gone.
My third mistake was like unto the second. (It was late; I'm a slow learner.) Maggie held up for my approval a sea foam green, double-knit thing that I mistook for a women's league bowling shirt. She was hurt, convinced I delighted in cruelty, when in fact I just didn't get it.
By the third store my legs had given out and I found myself sitting sheepishly in a chair by the dressing rooms. (Why aren't women this uncomfortable in men's stores?) I watched my daughters in a revolving procession that careened from gaudy to glory (whatever I thought was glorious, of course, was not). Whenever judgment was called for, all the saleswomen agreed with my daughters and smiled at me with either pitied amusement or condescension.
At the end of the day, however, we had two dresses in the bag. Dresses they liked and I had learned to like. I don't know how it happened exactly. I did most everything wrong and everybody came home happy. Which, as I think of it, isn't a bad example of grace. I now know that, at least when it comes to daughters and dresses, grace happens when you hit the stores. Just being there counts for everything. How well you do hardly matters.
A Party to Dinner
I married my wife for her pluck. Pam tells it straight. She is full of graceand truth. And woe to he (meaning mostly: me) who is lulled by that grace and forgets the truth. It will hit him like a haymaker.
It smacked me, for example, one Saturday when we were giving a dinner party. I spent the morning at church preparing a gaggle of crying babies, parents, and godparents for baptism. I also stopped by my office just to check my messages. (I don't know why, but this can take hours.) About one-ish I walked in the front door. When Pam looked up at me from the beans she was snapping, I could tell I had stayed too long at the office. Nevertheless, I smiled as if to say, Well, isn't this all lovely? The crooked smile that slewed my way said, Don't push it, buddy.
Nothing if not perceptive, I ditched my briefcase, changed clothes, and presented myself for duty. I put a few things in the dishwasher, and then stood there. It was plenty awkward. Finally I heard myself say: "Well, what do you want me to do?" As soon as it escaped my lips I could not believe my own innocent stupidity. I might as well have said, "It would be hard, darling, to care any less about this party, but there you are." Wiping her hands on a towel, she said in quiet anger, "I don't want to tell you what to do. You're smart enough to figure out what needs to be done and do it! This isn't my partyyou're not 'helping' me. This is our party we're doing this together, and I simply want you to act like you have a stake here." I knew what to do. The house must be picked up, the front step swept, the table set, the red sauce simmered. Someone must go for candles, for wine, for two tomatoes and chicken stock. So why do I want to be told what to do?
Beyond simple perversity and selfishness (I want the fun of the party, but I don't want to be put out), it all comes down to the work of a relationship. Relationships are hard, and especially hard for men. We know this. Even the beer commercials now ironically poke fun at this male difficulty. Entering into a mature relationshipand marriage is the greatest, most commonentails daunting risks. I will be invited into the darkness and light of the other's body and soul, and as W. H. Auden put it, I "will see rare beasts and have unique adventures." But I will also be asked to change and endure the pain of growth. My sin will be made manifest, as will the sin of my spouse, and we will both have to accept and forgive and go on. I need not be terribly successful at all of this. I am only required every day to be faithful, to come to the table. The opposite of this, if you must be reminded, is to come home late in the middle of preparations for a shared dinner party and ask for your marching orders like a hired hand who just punched the clock. Just tell me what to do. I am always mystified, when men talk among themselves, how proud they are to be lackeys at home. How openly they discuss the servile ways in which they report to "the boss." Often these are men who manage people by the score and budgets by the million. As a parish pastor I see men who "rule the world" come into church and sit down. Some of them, their whole bodies change. Shoulders slacken and their genuine authority seems to puddle in their socks. They're not in their element. Something inner, spiritual, emotional is being demanded, and they don't know what to do. When they come up against the demands of a love relationship with God, they often stammer, "Just tell me what to do, Reverend." I want to say, "If you were about to dance with a woman, would you walk onto the floor and say, 'Just tell me what to do'?" One can hardly speak about the progress of a marriage without segueing into the progress of the soul. No other experience lies closer to the heart of our spiritual lives than marriageor any lifelong union. In trying to image the union of God and humanity, the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament both repeatedly reach for the metaphor of marriage. If we want to practice the disciplines and habits that make for union with God, we are told to start with our spouse. What we learn in one relationship informs the other; the traffic goes both ways, from earth to heaven.
And so it is not a long ways from our dinner party to the divine. God will not tell us what to do any more than my wife would. (There are many sects and churches that are only too happy to oblige anyone who wants to be told what to do. They will even threaten you with damnation for failure if it makes you feel any better. But if this is beneath even my wife, surely it is unworthy of God.) We already know what to do if we are to live as one. Come to the table. Open ourselves both to bliss and risk. Commit ourselves to this thing as if we have a stake.
On this point, count yourself lucky (I do) if you live with someone who "won't take any merde," as the French would say it. Someone who can smell the stuff a mile away and call it cold. Someone who will press you and push you, who will not do your work for you. A person who can get angry about one thing at a time and not use the moment of anger to also name your other faults but, rather, simply stand there and insist that you live as one, now, in the midst of preparing for this simple dinner party, and in every other moment of your shared life together, world without end.