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The Good, the Bad, and the Goldfish
The cosmic battle between good and evil recently raged in our family room. Specifically, within the confines of our fish tank. When Ben was three and a half, he received two goldfish for Christmas. And for the first time in his life he was given the great responsibility of naming living creatures. After talking him out of his first choice of "Yuck" and "P.U.," we ended up with fish named "Good" and "Bad." Ben was in that stage of life where everything is black and white—there are no shades of gray. In those days our house was full of "bad guys" and "good guys" with no moral in-between. It was that simple.
And with our new fish I admit I saw an intriguing possibility, an opportunity to resolve the epic struggle between good and bad once and for all. The only remaining question was Who would prevail? The forces of good or bad? And to think this would all take place within a tiny tank of water in our house. But in the meantime, the fish seemed healthy as they adjusted to their new home, oblivious to the grave matter at stake.
Things were moving along swimmingly until we noticed a couple of dark spots on Bad's gills. They were barely perceptible in the beginning. But as time went on, I became worried. I'm no veterinarian, but Bad seemed to be going from bad to worse. Mercifully, it was quick. Three days after Christmas, Bad floated to the top of the tank. Good had conquered Bad—which was both good and bad. Because in three short days, we had all become attached to our new pets.
And then there was the question of how to break the news to Ben. It was close to bedtime when Bad breathed his last and Bryna and I debated the options in hushed tones. In a panic, my first thought was to ignore the situation, hope Ben didn't notice, and then rush out to find a replacement for Bad first thing the next morning. A variation on the old bait-and-switch routine.
As the possibilities swirled through our minds, Ben approached us and calmly announced, "Bad died." We both went toward the tank and reluctantly confirmed Ben's diagnosis. With Ben's help, I reverently scooped Bad out of the tank. We went to the first-floor powder room, Ben placed the corpse in the toilet, I said a prayer for Bad, and Ben flushed him down to his final resting place.
Immediately following the burial, Ben went to the stereo and asked me to put on some "baby music." I did so. He then told me that since Bad was a baby, he thought he should hear baby music as he went to Jesus. He also told me the music would help Good since he was lonely and missed Bad. Children do have an amazing sensitivity to ritual.
Bad did not die in vain. That night we spoke of heaven and the nature of mortality and Ben continued to ask questions and began to absorb the notion of death. And in light of a household tragedy, connections were being made in a young mind between life and death, the eternal and the temporal. The passing of a goldfish named Bad helped Ben begin to see how the human experience fits into the story of faith. It also eased the transition into a conversation I really didn't know how to begin.
The next day, we did get a new companion for Good. We were discussing potential names and after Ben rejected my idea of having Good and Plenty, he decided on Clementine. Why? Because I happened to be eating one at the time. So we now have Good and Clem. They both seem to be thriving, eating well, and getting along famously. And while the cosmic battle that raged in our house for three days is over, we'll never forget Bad. Ben still asks about him occasionally and we talk about life and death. It is, of course, a lifelong conversation, but I thank Bad for allowing us to get it started.
The Sound of Silence
There's not much silence in our house. If the boys aren't doing battle in their Ninja costumes, they're whining about the injustice of bath night. And if they're not playing football in the family room, they're laughing hysterically over fake burps. Kids don't come with mute buttons. I've looked.
Most of the noise is simply the sound of being a parent with active children. It's our family soundtrack, in a sense; the background "music" of this particular stage of life. It can be deafening at times, but it's so often joyful as well. Nonetheless, moments of silence are essential to our individual sense of well-being and sanity. And few of us, let alone parents of small children, get nearly enough of it. By the time the kids finally fall asleep, Bryna and I are usually too exhausted to enjoy it, and the next thing we know, the sun's starting to rise and Zack's clamoring for breakfast.
Maybe I'm overly sensitive to the lack of silence in our lives, but one thing that drives me nuts is the presence of televisions in public places. They're in airports, auto garages, grocery stores, restaurants, and doctors' offices. Perhaps it makes sense since the average American home now has more televisions than people. But between televisions and iPods, we're surrounded by near constant noise. And it begs the question, what are we afraid of? Why can't we sit in silence while the mechanic rotates the tires on our SUV?
When we find time for silence, even just a small amount, amazing things can happen. Parents may have to trade off with one another to go for a walk in the woods, but then again, silence is best experienced alone anyway. It certainly can't be found at the zoo or the playground or Chuck E. Cheese's.
I remember an ad for a long-forgotten bath product whose slogan was "Calgon, take me away." It showed a stressed-out mother tuning out the sounds of household chaos and slipping into a soothingly warm bubble bath. We all have days (or weeks or months) when we need to be "taken away," and intentional moments of silence can help transport us to a place of tranquility. Even if the first five minutes are spent going over the list for our next Target run or thinking through all the things to do at the office. Unless you're the Dalai Lama (and who is?), you probably can't build several hours of silent meditation into your daily schedule. But even a few moments help. If you're in the car without kids for some reason, turn off the radio. Or, if you're like me, turn off the Barney music that's been playing for the last ten minutes before you even noticed it was on.
Silence played an important role in my own call to ordained ministry, which actually took place over a sustained period of time. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and when I was in fifth grade, I felt very drawn to the priesthood. This lasted for a little while until I realized I would have to actually get up in front of people and speak. So I dropped the idea. Or at least it went latent for fifteen years. For a few years after college, I found myself working on and managing political campaigns across the country. Now, this work is allconsuming—seven days a week, crazy hours until election day. There's no time for yourself, let alone any time to be quiet. Then you're unemployed for a while until you find the next campaign—there's always one somewhere.
I did this for about four years before I eventually burned out. Or if I didn't burn out, I started to question the way people are used and treated as steppingstones rather than as children of God. So my sense of call started to resurface. And after leaving politics, I actually had some time to think; some time to listen. One of the things I did after leaving the campaign business was to work for a few months for a contractor. It was mostly basic painting jobs and I always worked alone. So I'd be up on a ladder with time to be with my own thoughts for the first time in years. I was forced to leave space for God and God spoke to me. Not out of a paint can but simply through the process of turning everything off and listening. Something I highly recommend doing on a regular basis, even if it takes some serious spousal negotiating.
At this point, silence in our house is a bad omen. When all I can hear is the hum of the refrigerator, I know the boys are up to no good. That parental sixth sense kicks in, and I usually find them doing an "art" project on their bedroom walls. And then it's my own voice that breaks the silence.
Every time I drive past a McDonald's, Ben and Zack plead with me to pull over. "We want Happy Meals!" comes the chant from the backseat. Parents know all about Happy Meals—and the persistent nagging they bring out in our children. The power of a cheap plastic toy and overpriced processed chicken is amazing. But within a day or two, the toy inevitably winds up on the floor of the minivan or the family room, forgotten and broken. So perhaps they should be renamed "Temporarily Happy Meals." Because the joy lasts only until the toy breaks, the boys get hungry again, and we pass yet another McDonald's.
We have a bucket full of old Happy Meal toys in our house. They're made up almost entirely of toys from old Disney or Pixar films. So there's Buzz Lightyear without a head and Lightning McQueen missing his rear axle. And those are just some of the ones I can identify—there are numerous animals and monsters from movies that flopped. The bucket is a veritable graveyard of animated creatures. What's amazing is the number of places where you can find these characters. How could a child possibly be expected to brush his teeth without Spiderman toothpaste? Or wear a diaper without Elmo's smiling face plastered all over it? Or eat fruit snacks not shaped like Shrek? It's amazing to think that any of us made it to adulthood. And this has nothing to do with the fact that our parents never even heard of bicycle helmets and that we spent long car trips sprawled out on the backseat with nary a booster seat in sight. All we had were Flintstone vitamins—which means that we quite literally grew up in the Stone Age.
Why is buying SpongeBob ice cream even an option? Because advertising works. Just ask any parent who's gone to the grocery store with a young child. I find that shopping carts turn my kids into octopi—their tentacles reach out longingly for anything they've ever seen on TV. At our house, Zack is particularly susceptible to the lure of advertising. Granted it has something to do with his age, but Mr. Instant Gratification, as I like to call him, wants everything he sees on television and he wants it now! Needless to say, he's often disappointed. Besides the fact that we'd quickly go into debt—his desires range from Lucky Charms cereal to a Nintendo Wii to a "real" castle—he may as well learn sooner than later that he can't, in fact, have it all. But boy are there some tantrums that lay between his fantasy and life's reality.
Every parent wants enduring happiness for their children, not just the temporary kind. Sustainable joy doesn't come from a Happy Meal or any other impulse buy. The root of all joy is faith in God, not the next hot toy. Which is also important for adults to remember. It's just as easy for us to fall into the "Happy Meal Syndrome." We see something we want and, believing it will bring us great joy, we go out and get it. And the new sofa or new car or new pair of shoes or new relationship does fill us with joy, temporarily. But the delight is transitory and soon forgotten; the happiness is fleeting and we are again left with the same hunger for joy and fulfillment. Then, like a child passing the next McDonald's, we pass another store window or open the next catalog, and the whole cycle starts over again.
The good news is that, when it comes to our children, we do have the power to break this cycle. We can say "no." Which may make us temporarily unpopular and it might mean enduring some powerful backseat whining when we drive past the next fast-food restaurant or toy store. But the whims of children cannot drive our household budgets and family priorities. Seven-year-olds don't need iPods and cell phones. Really.
It may be difficult to ignore the constant nagging. Especially when it's so intense that it makes you want to yank your hair out by the roots. But better that than raising children who will become unfulfilled adults, unable to maintain a life-sustaining relationship with Jesus Christ. Because that's what this is ultimately all about. It's about reordering our priorities to keep God, and nothing else, at the center.
Of course, I still occasionally pull over and get the boys their Happy Meals. Rewards are one of the joys of life for both kids and adults. But as I lean over and steal a few of their French fries, I think about how much of parenting, like life, is a balancing act. And how not everything that makes us "happy" in the short-term offers long-term fulfillment.
I like to eat a Big Mac about once every five years or so. I always feel a bit ill afterward and spend the next thirty miles of a long car trip regretting the decision. But boy, does it taste good at the time. Just like the abundance of emotional and spiritual junk food that exists in the world. Things, like trashy novels or the latest New Age healing method, that taste good going down but are never truly fulfilling. A little bit's okay, of course. Which means I'm about due for another Big Mac.
I used to like deer. Growing up in cities, there was a woodsy mystery associated with them. If I encountered one, I was fairly certain Little Red Riding Hood wouldn't be far behind. And seeing that graceful silhouette on a bright yellow Deer X-ing sign usually meant I was on vacation.
Then I moved to suburban Westchester County, New York. It's not that the myth was instantly shattered. I remember how my heart leapt the first time I saw deer in our backyard. I called the kids over to the window and we stared in awe at the beautiful creatures. Bryna, a Westchester native, laughed at me. For some reason she didn't share my wonder. "Just wait," she said.
That fall, our first in Westchester, I planted about seventy-five bulbs. Tulips, to be precise. I chose all sorts of colors: reds and purples, oranges and pinks. There was simply too much green in the yard for my taste, so I decided to take measures into my own hands.
Now, I'm a pretty lousy gardener. When it comes to plants, my major claim to fame is doing the impossible: I managed to kill a cactus. It turns out that they actually do need some water. But nevertheless I labored over an entire weekend, carefully choosing the locations, rearranging flowerbeds, digging holes, and gently placing the bulbs into the earth. How pleased I was envisioning the splash of color that would arrive come spring.
It wasn't until mid-April that I realized my horticultural foolishness. I didn't realize I had planted deer food. I didn't realize my autumn project would become a spring snack. And suddenly deer were no longer so cute. Instead of calming me, Psalm 42 now made my blood boil: "As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God." Because it was my tulips the deer seemed to long for. I began glaring and muttering at the deer under my breath. They just stared back, mocking my attempts to cultivate a colorful garden.
As everyone around here knows, and as I've recently learned, the Westchester County deer population is notorious. If they're not spreading Lyme disease through ticks, they're chomping on flowers and causing traffic accidents.
I guess I shouldn't complain. My efforts did result in one tulip. It was a beautiful purple and white flower. Lonely, maybe, but majestic and defiant. Why had this one survived when all the others had been so ruthlessly devoured? I was having these profound thoughts when Zack, who was then two years old, triumphantly plucked off the petals with great enthusiasm and bravado. Oh well.
But maybe we can learn something from these suburban raiders. Not everything conforms to our human wishes. We don't "own" nature and we don't "own" the world that surrounds us. Of course we act as if we do. Isn't that why we tend so compulsively to our manicured lawns? It gives us a sense of order and control. By some estimates Americans spend $61 billion on lawn care each year in attempting to tame the untamable. Because if even the most finely tended lawn in the neighborhood was left alone for a few months, it would quickly revert back to its natural chaotic state.
When I was a kid, my parents had the worst lawn in the neighborhood. Not because of neglect (mowing the lawn was my least favorite chore), but because of overuse. All the neighborhood kids played in our yard—tag, baseball, you name it. And my parents loved this. But the end result was that our lawn had more dirt than grass. And in a culture of competitive gardening, that made us suspect. Even to some of the parents who encouraged their kids to play on the Schencks' lawn.
The greatest contrast in lawn care was our house and the one just behind it. A retired federal judge lived there. It was the largest house in the neighborhood, and his team of lawn care professionals was unparalleled. When they arrived, it looked like a SWAT team moving out for action. They poured out of their trucks wearing sunglasses and matching uniforms armed with high-powered lawn care weaponry to attack the encroachment of nature. It was a rare occurrence to see even a single leaf on the judge's golf course greens–like lawn. Even at the height of autumn. And I remember after Hurricane David blew through Baltimore in 1979 and two giant oak trees came crashing down on the judge's lawn, it was spotless by the next day. In contrast, whenever it was my turn to mow our lawn, I was just happy when I didn't run over the bright orange cord and electrocute myself.
Excerpted from WHAT SIZE ARE GOD'S SHOES? by Tim Schenck. Copyright © 2008 Timothy E. Schenck. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Foreword by Barbara C. Crafton
Introduction: Kids, Chaos, and the Spiritual Life
The Good, the Bad, and the Goldfish
The Sound of Silence
What Size Are God's Shoes?
The Power of the Dark Side
Death by Chocolate
Field of Dreams
God Is My Superhero
Win, Lose, or Draw
The Wheels on the Bus
Jesus in the Mudroom
Too Cool at the (Town) Pool
On the Kitchen Floor
Portrait of the Artist
Back to School