After Thanksgiving: The Gifts of Need and Failure

I have a thing about looking good. Because of this, God gave me two small children.

He has not yet given me three children because he knows that I would die. I am not trying to be funny. I was doing okay with one child and then along came another and suddenly I understood that I could not do this on my own.

I have tried.

This can go well for a certain length of time—say when one child is napping, or at pre-school, or in 30-minute increments of Elmo or Curious George—but when both children are awake and undistracted, fully present in their naked state of need, suddenly I do not enjoy myself. Stuff happens. Liquids happen. Tantrums happen. And then there are the children.

This is not how I wanted it to be.

I used to read books. I used to go to the bathroom by myself. I used to spend hours quietly pondering a tree. I used to wear clothes well, without much effort and with some style. Such things may happen again, but they are not now.

My esteem has as many bumps and bruises as my children. I have a college degree, a graduate degree, and some experience in the workforce. Coworkers and bosses used to like me. These things count for nothing—Nothing!—as a parent. My children do not care that I did well in school. They do not care that I was a devoted employee who handled stress with wry remarks. They have never watched “The Office.” They do not understand my competence in life.

What they experience is a daddy who drives in wide circles on rainy days as a way to burn time until mommy gets home. A father who takes them to the science museum and then has to leave in a rush when the social anxiety kicks in and his panic rises. A man who once served to exhaustion in church but now plunks his kids in front of the television so he can sit Gollum-like with his phone for a few precious seconds of adult interaction. Posting my successes on Facebook for the world to see.

I accidentally let my six-week-old fall off the couch.

Oliver fell down the stairs. Again. I blamed myself for letting him wear socks in the house. No traction, you know.

There was the time I saw Ollie run into our master bedroom—I saw him with my own eyes—and when I walked in two seconds later he was not there. I am not making this up. I looked under the bed. I looked in the closet. We have a small room, there was nowhere else to look. I didn’t call his name because I didn’t want to seem like a fool. So I stood there for thirty seconds, gazing at the eggshell paint on the wall and wondering what had happened to my firstborn son. Wondering if I had actually seen him flee into that room or was it possibly a different room? Such things can drive you mad.

“Hi Daddy!” he finally said, wandering out of the closet. I do not know where he hid. Afterwards I checked, but secretly. I didn’t want him to know that I’d lost him.

And there is an ugly side, the side of me that gets frustrated when a child acts badly in public or cries at night and won’t be comforted. Or during choke-points. You know choke-points. Choke-points like wake-up and bedtime and meals and trying to leave the house, when everything seems to come together in a screaming cone of unmet need and there’s two of them and just one of me and the sound and the fury and I’m a linear introvert who once made straight-A’s so for God’s sake shut up and just let me THINK for a minute. It will all be okay if I can just think. Daddy’s doing his best. Here’s your Nutella sandwich and a school of Goldfish. Oh, and carrots. You don’t want carrots? Well don’t eat ‘em then. Leave ‘em on your plate. See if I care. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Sometimes Daddy’s best isn’t good enough.

And this is a great blessing.

My two boys have done something that nothing else in this world has been able to do. They have brought me crashing to my knees. And they have made me reach out for help.

In my life as a single guy I rarely asked for help. From family, okay, yes, sometimes. But not from friends. Certainly not from strangers. I have tried always to be the one giving, serving, helping. There was something in me—that thing about looking good—that refused to humble myself and admit what must have been obvious to everyone else: I can’t do life on my own.

I was never meant to do life on my own. Wasn’t created with the capacity, you understand.

Neediness.

Failure.

These are things God does to make people reach out to him and reach out to others. And you can sometimes mask them pretty well until you have two small children.

I need my wife. At Thanksgiving Oliver sat in his chair and threw small tantrums while our guests laughed awkwardly and looked at us, his parents, for their cues. I felt ashamed and wanted to fix Oliver’s behavior with punishment. I felt we were losing face. Teresa handled it better, observing out loud that he was looking for attention and wanted everyone’s love. She re-directed him, distracted him, gave him some alternative food options, showed him mercy and grace. It worked out better that way.

I need my friends. Yesterday I took the boys in the pouring rain to a friend’s house for a football party. On the way we stopped at Home Depot and Ollie threw a tantrum that knocked me on edge. Josiah screamed for the final fifteen minutes in the car. I felt my nerves balling up and then fraying like snapped piano strings. In the house, Ollie pushed his food around his plate and then stood behind my chair. I smelled an odor. “Are you going poo-poo?” My parent nose detected diarrhea—different, of course, from the normal bouquet of possible poo smells. Did I have diapers? Yes, thank God.

We went to a room. I changed Ollie’s diaper. Steve for the Win!

But his pants were ruined. I sniffed the stains to see if they were salvageable. They were not. I rooted through the bag. I had no extra pants. Those were in the other backpack, the backpack hanging neatly on the hook at home. Steve for the Fail.

We walked down the stairs past a roomful of partiers watching the game, watching us and surely wondering where Ollie’s pants were and why a father with two small children would fail to plan for contingencies. I would never make it as a SEAL. Back at the table, our friends quietly leant me a pair of their child’s pants, said we could keep them, said they’d done the same thing before. Another friend across the table said her daughter had once gone pantless at a department store and she just knew everyone was judging her and saying what a terrible mother she was. My cheeks burned but it made me feel less alone in my failure. It even carried me a little way through the rest of the afternoon when Ollie puked in the car and then in his crib. Diarrhea, people. It always means something.

I need Jesus. In my neediness, in my failure, when the boys have pushed me to my last reserves, I need the One who made me and knows me to give me the grace to push through. To hang on. To slow down, reach out, and ask for help. To find joy—yes, JOY—in the mess. Because it’s the mess that makes up most of each day, and it’s these messy days that make up the years of my life.

I have a thing about looking good. But I have a need for grace.

So God gave me two small children.

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The Gift of Small Things

In those days Pat could still be counted on to remember a few details about your life. Your name, for instance, and that you went to the same church. Other things you’d tell her three or four times in the same conversation until you turned hot from embarrassment. That was before the Alzheimer’s had really made itself at home in her head and rearranged all the furniture and then burned down her brain.

I was awkward the way many 19-year-old boys are awkward in the presence of age and now I wish I could go back and do it all over. Do it better, with a relaxed grip and a deep sense of awe. Instead, I sat in Pat’s dim living room and clutched my sweating glass and watched the ice melt and wondered how soon I could leave without appearing rude. I was rude, sometimes, mostly out of fear and my own provincial inexperience, but the trick was not to appear rude. I cared very much how I appeared.

Pat did not. She had got beyond all that because of her age and memory and so she dressed plainly and when she spoke it seemed like she was speaking from a place of utter sincerity. I decided she spoke for God.

On this occasion, after I’d mowed her lawn, Pat invited me in for cookies. A few mixing bowls sat on the counter and Pat’s clothes were dusted with flour. The oven light was on but I didn’t smell cookies. In the living room I sat on the edge of my chair and tried not to bounce my knees.

Pat wore a pleated blue skirt and a frilly blouse with huge buttons and there was a run in one of her stockings. She sat rocking quietly on the other side of the room with a confused smile and seventy years’ worth of memories locked and useless like an encyclopedia with its pages glued shut. I could see her eyes darting, trying to check the table of contents, trying to find some category to dust off and hold up as an object of conversation. God love her. What did I know?

Our silence lengthened.

Outside were moss and oaks, grass and sunshine, and through the plate glass window I could just see a fit young girl jogging past in a halter top that broke my heart. Inside, a double dimness I couldn’t stand. I gulped my water and started to rise. “Pat, I’ve got to go. I can mow your lawn again next week, but right now I’ve got to…” It was a lie, of course. I hadn’t got to anything.

“Oh do stay!” Pat interrupted. Her hands fluttered in her lap.

“I wish I could, really, but…” Through the window, I could see the girl getting away from me.

Pat put her hands on the arms of her rocker like an astronaut ready for launch. Her eyes centered and brightened. “But, Stephen, have I ever told you just how good God has been to me? He’s been so good to me all these years.”

I sank back into my chair. My better angels gathered around Pat’s spark and tried to blow it into flame, but part of me felt dark and hopeless. I was about to hear a recounting that Pat herself would not remember as soon as I walked out the door. It was hard to believe these moments counted for anything in my life.

I looked out the window. The girl, after all, was gone.

***

In 520 B.C., a small band of Israelites returned to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple. When the foundation stones were laid, the younger Jews rejoiced but some of the older Jews—those who remembered the magnificent Solomonic temple destroyed by the Babylonians years before—wept at the difference. The new temple, they thought, looked pitiful.

God spoke to the weepers: “Who despises the day of small things?” (Zech. 4:10). The temple, God implied, was fitting for its time and for its purpose. What mattered was not its richness nor its size, but that God had built it.

Like the Israelites, I have often despised the day of “small things.” Things which our time says are unimportant or unimpressive. Things which don’t normally make it on the evening news, into the school yearbook, or onto my Facebook feed. This blog is my attempt to celebrate such things. It is not a raging against big or impressive things—those things also have their place and their value. It is a mistake, I think, to always build one’s house from the ruins of another.

But I want to focus on the value and sanctity of small things. Not just physically small things, but things that are little valued in our time: Old things, young things, poor and rural and broken things. Uncompetitive things, imperfect things, inefficient and obscure and unborn things. Such things are gifts from God.

Today I can see what mattered in Pat’s living room so long ago. But at the time it seemed such a terribly inconsequential event, a charity, something to be endured like a dentist’s chair until I could get on to the things I thought really mattered—things like youth and free time and the hunt for a wife.

It never crossed my mind as I left Pat’s house—quietly turning off the empty oven as I walked past—that what this forgetful woman said about God’s goodness would remain for years as a beacon in my own darkened life.

I had much to learn about the gift of small things.

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