Monday, February 18, 2013

Cause and effect

Deuteronomy 8:10-18 (NIV)

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
In the last few days, Jack has had a crash course lesson in cause and effect. Not that we haven’t tried to impart such wisdom earlier, of course, but it really seemed to crystallize in the last 30 hours or so.

On Sunday, Jack got to go to my parents’ house after church. The rest of us came back down late in the afternoon for dinner. Near the end of the evening, Jack was getting dessert. I was walking through the house and noticed the light on in the office, which was empty, so I flipped it off. I thought nothing of it.

(Our children leave lights on and toilets unflushed wherever they go. If I charged them a quarter for every switch flipped and handle pushed I could outsource the job to someone who would do it for a dime and we’d both be able to retire early.)

Jack, on the other hand, thought a lot of it. Turns out he was headed back into the office with a bowl of ice cream. But instead of saying, “Dad, I’m going back in there!” or even “Hey!” he just grunted, put his ice cream down and stomped off into the basement. I turned the light back on for him and told him so, but it was no use. He pouted the rest of the time we were there, strongly resisted leaving, carried his sour attitude home and gave us a bunch of trouble about getting in the shower. En route to being forced to brush his teeth, he said a few choice words that cost him his screen time privileges for a week.

Yet through it all, Jack maintained the entire ordeal was my fault because I was the one who turned off the light. He refused to take ownership of anything — not a pattern of leaving lights on in vacant rooms all over the house, not refusing to explain his displeasure, not coming out of his funk in time to eat his dessert, not dragging his feet on the shower, not saying things he’d been warned not to say just a day before, nothing. By his logic, my one innocent mistake not only ruined his entire weekend but also gave him license to respond in the worst possible way.

I calmly explained to him, and later wrote out, how it was his decision to react poorly that led down the path of disappointment. I can admit making a mistake, but I’m not going to let him think another person’s error is a free ticket for him to carry on so rudely without repercussion. I’m sure my words fell on deaf ears and blind eyes, but I have got to keep trying to get through here. The world is going to forgive us all a fair amount of transgressions. But I’ve not met a successful adult who wasn’t willing to take at least a little blame when everyone can see where the fault lies.

His next lesson in cause and effect was a bit more practical. It came this afternoon at the dentist’s office, where he blatantly lied in answer to the “have you been brushing every day?” question. His response of “I missed a day or two” rang false the second the dentist saw the orange plaque on his lower teeth. As the dentist scraped away, Jack clenched his fists, tensed his legs and whined. Max, who had begged to come, said to me, under his breath, “is this really how Jack behaves at the dentist?” The dentist joined me in another calm explanation: If you really do brush your teeth every day, then you won’t be subject to all the scraping. Again, deaf ears I’m sure, but at least he didn’t have any cavities this time.

We had another kerfuffle right before bedtime tonight. Long story short, Jack was playing with a Charlie-sized toy. Charlie took exception and reacted the way two-year-olds do, and then Jack reacted the way two-year-olds do as well, which is not the desired outcome for someone who is almost nine. As all three kids got sent off to bed, Jack again tried to place the blame anywhere but on himself. He insisted he had a right to be angry.

You do have a right to be angry, I assured him, because he was right about that. He was playing with the toy first and, while he could have shared, he did not blatantly ask for Charlie to get mad at him. However, it is how he displayed that anger that led to the problem. Feel free to be angry, but don’t respond with immaturity and dangerous behavior. We keep reminding him if he doesn’t care for the punishments he should consider not causing the infractions in the first place. Yet his energy remains dedicated to explaining why he’s never at fault.

I’m in my early thirties and I’m sure I don’t always link cause and effect as well as I should. As good as I am in recognizing this (and other) shortcomings in my kids, I can be equally unable to identify them in myself. So while I will keep plugging away at trying to break through to Jack (some day he’ll understand it, or at least stop denying it, right?), I might also be well off to turn more of the focus inward to make sure I’m not overlooking my own giant stumbling blocks.

A prayer for February 18:

Lord, help me to pay more attention to the lessons I refuse to learn. It is wonderful to feel I might be growing and changing for the better, but I realize I’m probably overlooking certain mistakes I make so often I’ve almost assumed they’re part of the scenery. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Because of your power and your love, I have the ability to address all my challenges. You give me what I need to overcome. Be patient with me God, for I may be slow to adapt. But I want to make myself a better person, more worthy of you. Don’t ever give up on me. Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Looking back, looking ahead

Jeremiah 9:23-24 (NIV)

This is what the Lord says:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
   or the strong boast of their strength
   or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
   that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
   justice and righteousness on earth,
   for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.
On this, the 300th consecutive day I have tried to formulate thoughts about parenting and prayer and turn them into cogent writing, I was brought back to the very beginning. As I’ve noted several times, this project was inspired by two specific parts of my church life. The first was a congregation-wide evangelism study our small group tackled during Lent 2012. The second was a moment of inspiration at the end of that study in the midst of a sermon from one of our associate pastors.

Well, Lent began Wednesday, and there we all were today, our small group gathering in a Sunday school room after worship service to share lunch and begin our journey through another all-church Lenten study. Just minutes earlier I had been in the sanctuary, listening to that same associate pastor preach yet another moving sermon, her last for our congregation before she moves to California at the end of the month.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve grown a remarkable amount over the last 300 days through focusing on scripture, committing to praying daily and especially just taking stock of my emotions and actions with an eye toward living with intent and purpose instead of just reacting to whatever comes along. Yet in other ways, I feel I haven’t grown at all, that if anything I’m a bigger disappointment to myself because even after doing all that stuff I just said, I’m still making mistakes left and right and having many of the same struggles with the kids as we faced last April.

Of course, those warring internal perceptions might be considered healthy. I need to feel like I’m making some progress, otherwise I’d just become frustrated and quit. But if I ever feel like I “solved” something or had everything figured out, I’d be like a person mentioned in the passage form Jeremiah, boasting of wisdom or strength. My favorite part of the passage is the careful distinction that the one who boats should boast not of knowing God, but of having the understanding to know God. As I read that, it says “Don’t tell people you know God — you can’t fully know God. But what you can say is your heart and mind are open to God, and that you are guided by God’s capacity for kindness, justice and righteousness.”

One of my recurring themes is how a life of faith and regular prayer does not make me better than anyone else. I still consider myself broken, sinful and in need of God’s saving grace. I do feel my belief is a sustaining force, that it helps me live differently than I would if I did not know God. I understand plenty of people think their lives are entirely complete without any faith whatsoever. I’m just different. I feel my life is only complete because it is built on faith and everything I have that is worth anything is only enriched through God’s many blessings.

I frequently return to the big-picture question: “What kind of parent do I want to be?” And as I plod along searching for a big-picture answer, I find lots and lots of little answers, building blocks contributing to a larger assembly. Unlike a set of Legos, where the finished product is pictured on the box and step-by-step instructions come inside, I’m more of a constant work in progress, perpetually subject to change. Further unlike Legos, I’m not the one putting all the pieces in place. Rather I am the pieces, and I’m trusting God to continue to mold me into something resembling how I was designed in the first place.

Letting go of my instincts can be incredibly difficult. Even though I’ve been rewarded for doing so in the past, and burned when I resisted, the chance to assert my own control (or the perception thereof) usually is too great to ignore. If I do anything in the next 65 days of this effort, I hope it is to take time every day to catch myself in a moment, completely stop and pray for God to take over.

I keep trying to tap into things like God’s kindness, justice and righteousness. While I still think that’s the right aim, what I’m actually doing is attempting to claim those things as my own attributes rather than ask God to use me for those purposes. I have to continue to break down my self-built walls and allow myself to be reshaped in God’s image. I don’t want to struggle each day with choosing my way or God’s way, I want to just fully know what God’s way is and live accordingly.

These last 300 days have been meaningful. If nothing else I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the blessings of fatherhood and the enormity of the attendant responsibility. I hope and pray to be the father my children deserve. Some days are better than others. I really feel I’m trying my best, yet I realize some days my best isn’t good enough. That’s why it can’t be “my” anything, it has to be God, working through me. If only I can let God in to make it happen.

A prayer for February 17:

Lord, I thank you today for perspective. For the reminders of how and why I started this project. For the windows into other parents’ lives and struggles. For the appreciation of why this hard work is important and the potential lasting benefits. Continue to guide me, God. Mold me and use me however you see fit. Do not let me take pride in my achievements, do not let me forget how I need you to accomplish anything of value. Make me a better person, God, that I might be able to teach my children how to live in your love. Amen.

Friday, February 8, 2013

'I told you so.'

Psalm 84:8 (NIV)

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty;
   listen to me, God of Jacob.
“I told you so.”

That’s what Jack said to me when I picked him up in the busy school office this afternoon because he spiked a fever.

“You told me what?” I asked, because I am long past the point of being surprised by anything Jack says to me in public.

“That I had a headache. I told you that before school and you didn’t believe me.”

“That was yesterday, buddy. You didn’t say anything about a headache this morning.”

“Well I still had one!”

And there we were. Not sure how to respond, I just drove him home. I’d offered to leave work to get him because Charlie was taking a nap at home while Max was at preschool. Plus Kristie had to take Jack and Charlie out to pick up Max about an hour after Jack got home anyway. And since Jack was sick, we canceled by babysitter for tonight and I went to our small group alone. I knew that would be the case since Kristie has a knit night with some girlfriends set up for Saturday, so me doing the “get the sick kid” run just seemed like the best way I could help.

When Jack was a baby, I was a newspaper reporter working semi-regular hours and Kristie was a band director working well more than 40 hours per week. Once her maternity leave ended, we tended to schedule Jack’s doctor appointments (outside of regular, planned-well-in-advance checkups) when I could take him. I don’t think my dad ever took me to the doctor as a child, so it never occurred to me that was something I could or would do as a father. But it proved to be a rewarding experience.

For one thing, it made me feel like I knew everything going on with his well being. I knew where to go or who to call if there were an emergency situation when Kristie was gone. I was able to be his guide and guard when shots or other uncomfortable measures were needed. Even when Max came on the scene I was pretty involved with the medical stuff for both kids. If one of them was sick, there was no sense bringing the healthy one to the medical facility. Sometimes it just fit my schedule better than Kristie’s to swing by for a regular vaccination.

Even with Charlie I’ve had at least one memorable (for all the wrong reasons) solo trip to the pediatrician. For some parents it’s probably seen as a tremendous chore, and with good reason, but I greatly appreciate the flexibility that allows me to be involved on this level. Being the adult taking a child to the doctor — even when the child is in grade school — very directly reminds me of my role and responsibility as a father.

That said, for all my involvement in certain parts of my children’s medical histories, I am not always the most nurturing parent. I am very good at hugs and whispering “it will be OK” on a virtual loop. I have gotten pretty handy at administering medicine to unwilling recipients (so long as they are human; cats are another story). But when a child wakes up sick in the middle of the night, my main contribution is waking up with them and being able to roust Kristie. And perhaps remembering where we keep the puke bucket.

But I don’t ever remember anything about how to deal with childhood illnesses other than hoping the kid sleeps it off. You give what for a fever? How many days before we call the pediatrician? No, I don’t remember which ear he was tugging. I am not scared of blood, but I typically do not keep my cool when one of the children is bleeding. Just about the only way to make sure I’m level-headed is for Kristie to be so anxious and unsettled such that I am subconsciously and unusually serene. One inexplicable strong suit of our partnership seems to be an uncanny ability for only one of us to be off kilter at a time. This has helped keep many potential crisis situations from blowing over.

But again, “I told you so.” And I didn’t have a comeback. He had told me so about 36 hours earlier. It’s his first illness in several months. That probably means no time outdoors Saturday enjoying the abundant snow in our yard. He may have to miss his Blue & Gold Cub Scout banquet Sunday, and we may need to have a plan for dealing with him that morning when we both have to be at church by 8:30 a.m. for a bell choir run-through. Then there’s the fear that whatever bug is responsible for Jack’s fever has already infected the other two. I guess someone has to be Patient Zero.

But hopefully we’ll be out of the woods soon without much extra concern. Getting sick every so often is more or less a part of growing up. And next time Jack has a headache, or even thinks he does, I’m sure he’ll cling to today’s experience and insist he be allowed to stay home because, “Remember what happened last time?” If there is a next time, I’m getting Kristie involved. That way even if everything else plays out the same way, we both can be on the receiving end of an “I told you so.” Because sharing is the best.

A prayer for February 8:

Lord, our life is filled with so many blessings, all it takes is for one tiny piece to be outside the normal bounds for me to get a deeper appreciation for just how well suited I am to the typical routine, how important it is to me for us to have stability and predictability. Please help me use this time to fully consider my role and responsibility as a father, and give me the strength to try ever harder to rise to the best of my abilities. Amen.