Chapter 9: Working with Dad
Some days, the kids decide that they’d like to help with work around the house. The only problem is that the chores they’re motivated to assist with are rarely the tasks that Courtney and I are hoping to tackle that day. Usually the jobs our children feel drawn to are directly opposed to what we’re looking for. Countless times we’ve asked them to pick up toys from the floor, but Ellie and Francis ultimately decide that it’s more important that they reset each toy (already on the floor) to a new location (still on the floor) that better respects the spirit of that particular toy. Keep in mind that these are toys that had been thrown or left on the floor within the past few hours, so it always amazes me that when it’s time to pick these toys up, the kids feign excitement over each piece as if it’s a long-lost friend that they can’t imagine evicting from its current location.
Any time that my children spend outside inevitably leads to their forming new attachments to sticks, rocks, and leaves that the kids can’t imagine living without. Walking back in the house is always an attempted arbitration as Francis argues for how fun it would be to add a few stones and leaves to his bedroom floor. We recently traveled to France for a pilgrimage, and upon returning home, we emptied the kids’ backpacks to find that Francis had smuggled three large sticks to Austria. It was the one time I found myself wishing that airport security had been more thorough on their scans, but Francis was clear that these were the best sticks he had found in France.
Despite our competing concepts of what constitutes work, or what kind of tasks are actually helpful, we love working alongside our kids. When Ellie had just turned two, the parish I worked at had a playground attached to a preschool. Ellie was at the stage in development where she was getting sturdier on her feet and a bit more ambitious, so playgrounds with slides could keep her entertained for hours. With no other children present to threaten harm, and the playground covered in wood chips to soften falls, I had finally found a common play area that was good for my blood pressure. After trying all the slides and swings, Ellie grabbed a toy wheelbarrow and started pushing it from one end of the playground to the other. After getting to the other side, she put one twig in the wheelbarrow and walked to back to her starting point. Through a series of gestures, a few words, and some intense looks, she made it clear that she wanted me to help her move the sticks.
We made several trips, grabbing handfuls of sticks and loading them in the wheelbarrow, and then unloading the sticks twenty steps later when we had reached the obvious stick graveyard. As much as I love my daughter and valued her contributions, the stick relocation process was slowed greatly by Ellie’s involvement. Either she would take sticks out of the wheelbarrow herself and throw them on the ground or she would insist on pushing the wheelbarrow and then lose her balance as the sticks came tumbling out. By the end of our time at the playground, I don’t think we had successfully moved more than five or six sticks. What was incredible to me at the time was that Ellie found the task so fulfilling and was completely oblivious to the pathetic net result of our efforts.
Francis loves helping me bring firewood upstairs from our basement garage to the woodburning stove on the main floor. Each time he joins me, it takes longer than if I had done it myself. We first have a conversation about how much he loves fire, then we wait for him to find the most appropriate (according to the given day and mood he’s in) shoes to wear into the garage. Once we’re in the garage, he thoroughly analyzes various options of wood pieces while I stack logs into a basket. He confirms each piece with me that he’s chosen, sometimes abandoning the stick seconds later when he’s found a better one. When my basket is full of firewood, I tell him it’s time to go back upstairs, but Francis always needs another minute or two to survey the garage once more and see if there are any good sticks he left behind.
Every so often I’ll bring the kids to my office to give Courtney a break. As with every other experience in our family, the reality involves more cleanup than I had envisioned. I’ll have cartoons loaded and ready to go on a computer in hopes that the kids will be as excited about the opportunity to watch cartoons in my office as they are to watch cartoons at home. Of course it can’t be that easy. Usually Ellie will start by opening my desk drawers, searching for the perfect highlighters for her newest work of art. Next, Francis will be inspired by Ellie as he begins scribbling with the highlighters that Ellie’s deemed unworthy of her work. Approximately 70% of this scribbling is done on a paper while the rest of the scribbling becomes a permanent exhibit on my desk and the floor. Of the paper chosen, roughly half of the time it is pieces of paper that were blank and ideal for scribbling. The other half of the papers that Francis uses were previously useful and on my desk for a reason.
While both older siblings are scribbling on paper and furniture respectively, Isaac usually takes the opportunity to explore the now-opened desk drawers. Because the desk is at the level of Isaac’s head, the only way he can get a good sense of the contents is to grab everything and throw it on the floor. Any resistance I offer or any attempts to redirect the kids’ attention to the cartoons is met with responses from my new office mates that they prefer “helping” me over watching shows.
Looking back, I realize that my years in youth ministry weren’t all that different from Ellie’s lumber hauling efforts. I worked hard and tried my best, but at the end of the day, any real progress was all God’s doing. I put pressure on myself, fearing that my failures would frustrate the Father’s plan of transforming the lives of the teens I worked with. I worried about the small group questions, the talks, the snacks, even the games we played at the beginning of our weekly youth group meetings. I was convinced that I was doing this important job for God, as if He needed my help. I know that over the course of eleven years, there were several people that I disappointed and let down, and miraculously enough, God still reached them. Now several years later, it’s incredible to see the ways that many of those teens (now adults) responded to grace and live for Christ.
God the Father must love working with us, His children. Even though He’ll have to clean up the messes we make, even though our attempts to help often require more work on His part, God loves spending time with us. Though I could’ve moved the sticks much faster without Ellie’s “help,” the time spent was worth it for me because I love my daughter. If even an impatient dad like me can enjoy working alongside his kids, how much more must our perfectly patient Father love when we “help” Him.
It’s so freeing when I realize that the pressure is off; God loves people too much to put the burden of their conversion solely on my shoulders. This doesn’t negate the importance of our efforts and our baptismal call to share the good news with others, but it is essential to remember that God is inviting us to participate in His mission, not the other way around. The Church teaches that the Holy Spirit is the “principal agent of evangelization.” It is God Himself who is both proclaiming the Gospel and opening the hearts of those who will receive it.
Grocery shopping with my kids is always an exciting experience. I never know which items they’ll attempt to walk out of the store with or what newly discovered snack they’ll swear that their lives would be meaningless without. Sometimes I make the mistake of letting Ellie and Francis push miniature shopping carts; by the time we reach the cashier, each little cart is packed with the five items I put inside and approximately 24 additional items that the kids thought they’d sneak past me. While my kids prefer their own carts, I’m a huge fan of the grocery stores that have full-sized shopping carts with miniature kid cars, complete with seatbelts and steering wheels attached to the front. I load my kids into the mini car and they’re thrilled to be riding around and turning the steering wheels, completely unaware that they have no control over the path of our shopping cart. They’ll still argue with each other over which way to turn and how fast they want to drive, oblivious to my role in the process. My kids are a lot like me; I worry about every twist and turn as if I was in control while God’s really driving and asking me to come along for the ride.
For some reason, God constantly seeks to bring His stubborn and inefficient children into His work of redemption. At the last supper, Jesus warned His disciples that suffering was coming and that many of them would abandon Him. Like most men, Peter felt the need to assert his strength when it was called into question. He replied, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you” (Mark 14:31). Within hours, Peter would deny even knowing Jesus. Despite Peter’s repeated denials, God was committed to working in and through Peter’s life. Looking back through the history of the Church, we find a long line of sinners, deniers, and fair-weather followers that the Father continued to work with in reaching the world with the Gospel. In every sacrament we receive supernatural gifts from the Father mediated through fallen people. God could have chosen any other way to reach us, but He keeps insisting on involving other people. He is so committed to us and remains faithful in good times and in bad. The Father’s choice to work with me isn’t based on my abilities or my talents, it’s rooted in His love for me.