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Somewhere More HolyStories from a Bewildered Father, Stumbling Husband, Reluctant Handyman, and Prodigal Son
By Tony Woodlief
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Tony Woodlief
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Ring living room
It's funny how in naming rooms we assign them aspirations. To me, "living room" evokes the image of grand, purposeful activity. We're really living now, someone might say in such a place. Live it up, boys! the master of the house might tell his companions when they gather in his living room, perhaps while sporting bowler hats and smoking fat cigars.
Likewise do we label "dining room" that place where many children shove macaronis onto their canine teeth and pretend they are noodle monsters. And we euphemistically call "bathroom" that place where mostly we pee and primp. In much the same way "living room" is mislabeled in our home. We might more accurately call it a "wallowing room," or a "secret-place-to-eat-a-cookie-when-Mom-isn't-looking-room," or a "wrestling ring."
Sometimes my sons affect a civilized streak, and use the living room as a place to read. Then our hearts are warmed, Celeste's and mine, because our living room is filled with bookshelves, and we've always hoped that one day we might actually get to read some of the books they hold. We don't really care if we never get to live it up in our "living room"; we'd settle for quietly soaking up words in our "reading room," free of complaints and wrestling and incessant requests for snacks, assistance finding lost toys, justice against a brother who has whacked his sibling, help wiping a behind, and so on. If all our children become gentle readers, we will be very satisfied parents. So we love the sight of a child holding a book in our reading/living/don't-you-dare-break-mom's-antique-lamp room.
As is perhaps true of all civilizations, however, barbarity is never far from the border. This is the case as I wander into our living room and am initially warmed to spy Eli hunched over a Dr. Seuss book. His blond hair-he and his mother are the only ones in our family with hair that doesn't look like it's in a constant state of rebellion-gleams golden in the sunlight, and I can see his delicate freckles from the doorway. He is so sweet, and quiet, and terribly unaware that four-year-old Isaac-hair all atangle and a hunter's gleam in his brown eyes-has climbed onto the arm of the couch behind Eli, preparing to use it as a turnbuckle from which to administer a devastating tackle.
The key in such a moment is to remember that this instinct of Isaac's will come in handy should he ever become a Navy SEAL, or need assistance in one of those retail establishments that employ teenagers who must have an arm twisted behind their backs before they'll actually help a customer. At the same time, a conscious Eli is much more enjoyable than a bleeding, unconscious one. And there is the deductible for the emergency room visit to consider.
All this goes through my head as I sweep in even quieter than Isaac, who is just now rearing back to give himself extra momentum. As he launches himself I catch him in midair. He cackles with delight because this means Wrestle Time with Dad. I heft him over my shoulder and carry him to a safe place for pretend pile drivers. Eli gazes at us with his chocolate brown doe eyes before returning to his book, oblivious to how close he came to getting clobbered.
I suppose we all have those moments. We often think God stingy because we don't see all the times he protects us from something terrible. We only keep count of the times something bad happens, or something really, really good (as opposed to the good things most of us take for granted, like food and a warm bed and the expectation that our children will outlive us). I suspect that frequently I am like Eli, peacefully going about my business while above me God is striking down robbers, redirecting meteors, and quenching fires before they start.
We parents would protect our children, if we had the power, from every bad thing. This is why some of us have trouble forgiving God after something terrible happens. We stand mourning by that grave where our beloved lies, or we grieve over a spouse who has abandoned us, or we sit in our cold new wheelchair, and we cry out to the God who told us to think of him as a father: Where were you? How could you?
We ask these accusatory questions because we believe God has the power to protect us and those we love. He has promised to be a good parent. Yet sometimes he is still when we desperately want him to move. He is quiet when we cry out. Loving parents would prevent every bad thing if they could, but even the best parents sometimes fail their children. Yet God doesn't have that excuse, does he?
God need never fail us, yet it seems that he does.
Some strains of faith try to shrug off this bleak reality by claiming that God really isn't that powerful after all. Bad things happen to good people, they say, because God isn't really omnipotent. Others redefine terms, so that bad is actually good in some cosmic sense. All things work together for good, they'll quote you from the Bible, as if everything that transpires is therefore good. These are often the people who have not buried their children. Most of them have not watched a beloved husband or wife wither away in agony, or received a call in the night that says: the person you loved most is gone. They've not stood on a beach where thousands of bloated corpses batter the shore after a tsunami and declared it good, or seen the body of a toddler beaten to death by his own mother and announced that it is according to God's eternal plan.
This Americanized interpretation of the Bible fits our sitcom view of the world, in which all things must be neatly resolved before the episode's end. But Jesus wept over the dead body of his friend even as he intended to restore his life. Suffering and death are heartbreaking tragedies in God's creation, and as he weeps, so do we rightly weep. All things work together for good is our hope for the future, when Christ brings us into that place where there "shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying." It is a declaration of God's power to restore all that is being torn asunder, and to bring about the redemption of creation even out of the terrible horrors that darkness unleashes on it.
In the immediate pain of loss, however, that half-verse-All things work together for good-is an abstraction at best. At its worst it is, in the dark night of your soul, an obscenity. This is because we want to believe, even many of us who claim not to believe in God at all, that he is a loving father who will rush to the place where we are imperiled and rescue us from being clobbered.
But sometimes he does not come, and after the casket is placed in the ground, or the divorce is finalized, or the wheelchair is fitted to our useless limbs, we begin to resent him. Where were you? we cry out. Where are you now? we may pray this to him, or scream it as we drive along a dark country road, or whisper it in the shadows of our minds, terrified to consider what it entails. We may ask it in faithlessness, the way a betrayed spouse might question the one she wants to love but can no longer trust, or in faith, as a wounded child who simply wants to understand. When we suffer all of us ask God the same question: Why?
Eventually we hear an answer. It is not the answer we want, but it is better than the silence. That answer, which comes to us while the choir sings in church, or when we lay in the bitter afterglow of weeping, or perhaps simply as we sit quietly over a cup of coffee, goes something like this: I have been here all along. It explains nothing. It offers no excuse, no big picture into which our wounds fit nicely. It merely offers up its own wounds, and whispers: This is what the world does to us. Rest here in me, Beloved, who grieves with you even as others forget your suffering. One day I will restore what was lost, and your face will forget the feel of tears.
This is the comfort of God within the ashes of your despair. In one sense it is not enough, because we want to know why the all-powerful God who claims to love us did not dash in to prevent our catastrophe. Often the answer is simply: It is not for you to know. This is a hard answer, but sometimes it is the only answer, and so we take solace in knowing that God grieves with us. When he does not stop us from being wounded, he receives the wounds as well, just as you or I suffer when our own children suffer. There is some solace in that-and in knowing that one day, when the dead rise up and we no longer see "through a glass darkly," when presumably the answers are finally available, we'll be so happy that we'll forget we ever had questions.
Sometimes flowers, meanwhile, spring up from those ashes. We have four of them in our house, though perhaps "flower" isn't the right word to apply to a child who thinks it is fashionable to wear nothing but tighty-whiteys and cowboy boots, sporting a toy sword in one hand and a cap gun in the other. You think you are settled and dignified, seated comfortably in your living room with a book in your hand, and then that sight goes traipsing past at the edge of your vision, and you want to laugh at him except for the fact that he is so very serious about his accoutrements and you need to take him seriously too.
No, boys don't frequently resemble flowers, I suppose. Flowers, after all, enjoy a good shower, but mine argue bitterly when you tell them it's bath time. Yet in a way I think they are very much like flowers, and you can see it in how they swell up with happiness when you love them, as if your words and touches are rain. They spring up in this home that we thought would forever feel barren, and they are beautiful to see. Just don't mention I called them flowers. One day when they have their own children I'll let them read this, and then perhaps they'll understand what I meant.
I suppose boys don't want to be compared to flowers because they want to be made of tougher stuff. At various times they come to you and announce that they want to be knights when they grow up, or cowboys, or Army men. Six-year-old Eli told me recently that he wants to be a knight-fireman. "You want to be a fireman-knight, huh?" I responded, humoring him. "No," he replied. "A knight-fireman." I'm not sure what the difference is, but I told him I can't wait to see the uniform. Eight-year-old Caleb lately talks of becoming a detective, which in his formulation involves a combination of invisible ink and machine guns. I assume without asking that Isaac will forge a career in professional wrestling.
One of the classes Celeste had to endure while earning her Masters in Education from the University of Michigan was ostensibly about differences between boys and girls, though the professor believed there are none. This professor was bent on convincing her students that all differences between boys and girls are "socially constructed," meaning that if not for our sexist behaviors as a society, lots of boys would want to diaper baby dolls, and lots of girls would ask their fathers (or mothers) to show them how to bow hunt. I don't believe this professor had any children. Perhaps that's a prerequisite to being an expert any more, that one not be distracted from one's theories by the messiness of reality. This probably also explains why none of my wife's education professors had any experience teaching actual, live children.
I am by no means a manly man. I don't know how to hunt, I've never been in the military, and snakes give me the heebie-jeebies. I get teary every time I see that scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles when Steve Martin comes back to find John Candy sitting alone in a train station on Thanksgiving day. I got teary just typing that sentence about it. So I don't know where my sons are getting all this "social construction" that conditions them to want to be warriors and heroes, but it isn't from me, and it certainly isn't from television shows, which we don't allow them to watch. Whatever the impetus, they aspire to far greater toughness than they will find in their father.
As I write this, Christmas is approaching, and this snowy evening the boys are assembled on the couch, watching The Polar Express. Isaac is clutching his beloved Ducky, a little stuffed animal that he carries everywhere. The movie has reached the scene where the train is barreling across ice, trying to stay ahead of the cracks that threaten to plunge it into freezing dark water. The boys are wide-eyed. Isaac has his legs drawn up to his chest, and he is pressing Ducky to his lips. I sit down on the couch and put my arm around him. "It's just pretend, little buddy," I whisper. "Are you scared?"
He leans into me and puts his head against my chest. He smells like chocolate-which I don't think anybody authorized him to eat- and little-boy sweat. "I not scared," he whispers back. "Ducky scared."
I understand this impulse we have-especially we boys and men-to deny our fear. It's most comically evident in those window decals you sometimes see, the ones that declare: No Fear. I can't help but assume the opposite, that a teenaged boy (or a man who hasn't left behind his boyish mentality) puts that sticker in his window precisely because he is scared, because he is terrified, and because he is afraid as well that everyone will smell the fear seeping out of his skin and think him unmanly. So he sticks that decal in his window and juts out his chin and tells himself that all these affectations are proof of manhood.
I don't want my sons to know when I am afraid because I don't want them to worry. I spent too much of my childhood worrying. I took Nancy Reagan's admonitions against drug use seriously, and I was afraid the police would come and arrest all of us because my adoptive father grew marijuana and kept other drugs in the house. I worried when he would drink and turn mean. I worried when my mother lay in the bed crying in the middle of the afternoon, or when the food ran low, or when we had to move because we couldn't pay the rent.
All of this makes me want to keep my children from ever knowing that I worry about getting fired and not being able to pay the bills, about dying and not being there for them, about one of them getting sick, about car wrecks and child-snatchers and financial meltdowns and chemical warfare.
Yet worse than seeing my fear, I suppose, would be for them to struggle through life thinking that men are supposed to be fearless. You can only be fearless when you love nothing. Some ascetics in inward-focused religions achieve this state, as do some psychopaths. It is not the path designed for humanity, however. We were crafted to love others, and we are called to love them more than our own miserable skins. If someone loves himself more than all else, then he is still bound to know fear, but it will be a fear that makes him a coward. He will be someone who won't risk hardship to stand up for what's right, who refuses to forego personal comfort for a cause greater than himself.
Only by loving others more than ourselves can we overcome everyday cowardice. Yet ironically it is when we love others more than ourselves that we truly come to know fear. Everyone reading this who has a child or a spouse or beloved brother or sister knows this fear. It is the fear that they will suffer and be taken from you, and that there is nothing you can do about it. It is the fear that flits across the back of your mind even in good times, like the shadow cast by a lone cloud on a sunny day. It is the fear that forms like ice around your heart when illness strikes, or they have gone missing, or they persist in harming themselves despite all your praying and begging that they not destroy what you love.
My prayer for each of my sons is that one day they will love others more than themselves. In effect I am praying that they will know fear. So if my job is to help prepare them for manhood, I will have to teach them that real men are afraid, and that we go on in spite of it. I will teach them as well that a real man needs a real woman by his side, and real women are afraid too. We are all of us cold with fear sometimes, but because we are truly men and women, and not among the growing crowd of perpetual adolescents brimming over with self-absorption, we press on in spite of our fears.
I used to think that I had to exhibit only strength in front of my boys. I figured they needed someone to show them how to conquer the world. Yet lately I have been thinking about how God approached us when he took on human form. He came not in glory, but in meekness. He came and suffered in our darkened world, declaring all along: This is how you must live if you would abide in me.
Excerpted from Somewhere More Holy by Tony Woodlief Copyright © 2010 by Tony Woodlief. Excerpted by permission.
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