Tony Woodlief | Author

The Striving

I’m learning patience from the lady who is teaching Eli how to play the violin. She is a long-time public school music teacher, the kind we wish or imagine still ran things there, kind and competent and able to talk to little ones in a way that makes them feel listened to and special, yet with a firmness in everything she does that quietly, gently whispers, “Don’t cross me.”

She listens while Eli tells her about Caleb’s birthday cake, or shows her that the music notes look like balloons and golf clubs (they do, you know), or explains how his little brother thinks the chorus to “Old MacDonald” is “Eli-Eli-O.” She always manages to steer him back to the task at hand without saying, “shush it and pay attention,” which is my method. Sometimes when I watch her I am ashamed of the times that I have been impatient with Eli and his brothers, because there is no excuse for it. If a four year-old boy can be quietly and gently taught to sit still and learn the violin, then I have no excuse for bellowing at him to brush his teeth.

I learned from someone who has raised several wonderful children that the secret is not so much in shaping them, as in shaping ourselves. He told me that whenever he confronted something in one of his children that he knew didn’t belong there — selfishness, say, or a spirit of anger — he found that there was some corresponding attribute in himself that needed changing. It’s a frightening and humbling thought, because there is so much about me that is bad right down to the core. Don’t look to ancient stories of fish and loaves if you want to see a miracle, look to the changed heart of a man.

Every time I pray for my children, I am praying for a miracle, because where they fall short, I have failed. Last week, Caleb frittered away his time rather than doing his schoolwork, to the great frustration of his mother. He spent the day resisting her and manufacturing excuses. His brothers were too loud; the work was too hard; his eraser didn’t work right. It had become a battle of wills. So he went to bed without supper. I had to explain that he wouldn’t die from missing a meal, because he was quite certain that he would.

As he calmed down, Caleb asked if I was going to eat. “No,” I told him, “because the fact that you didn’t get your job done today is proof that I haven’t done my job.” We were both satisfied with that, him because he knew he wasn’t suffering alone, and me because I know it is true. The training up of my children goes hand-in-glove with the breaking down of my own self-centeredness.

I used to think that I would have the luxury of somehow raising my boys to be real men of honor, strength, and grace, without ever possessing those attributes myself. Now I face the frightening reality that this is an impossible task. If we want our children to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God, then we have to do the same. Sunday school: it’s not just for kids any more.

This is on my heart today because I have decided to oppose something that I believe is wrong, and doing so may cost me. Here is the curious thing: I feel compelled to do it because I want my sons to have courage, yet if I don’t do it, they’ll never know.

But I’ll know. That’s the catch. If I fail to act after being convicted to do so, then I have been a coward. Our children see through our eyes, you know. A man can’t be a coward, or hate-filled, or faithless, and not have his children see it. And they love us so much that they try to become us, even if what we are is reprehensible.

I am a coward; we should be clear about that. But because I love them, today I will not be a coward. That’s how it works, I think. We are weak and broken and dark-hearted, yet we resist these things within ourselves. Where I am weak, He is strong.

When you realize that works are intimately bound up in faith, and further, that as a parent your path is the easiest for your children to follow, then you really have no choice. There is no waiting and endlessly preparing and ruminating on holiness, there is just the doing of it, the slow, painful separation from the path of the world.

I wonder, were more people aware that in Hebrew the word we call “holy” means “separate,” if that would change anything. Holy doesn’t mean being good, it means walking the separate path that God has laid down for you, his beloved, chosen when all you knew to do was follow the herd. Anybody can be good, especially when we let good be defined by the safe, church-going masses.

But to be holy, well, that is another matter, isn’t it? The separate path is a dangerous path. As parents, we are conditioned not to lead our children into danger. Yet we have no choice. Walk the holy path, or let the world sweep them down its well-trodden road. There is no sending them off to do what we failed to do, no handing them a Bible and a sack lunch and wishing them well; we have to walk the path ourselves.

I suspect I may fail at this holiness thing. Let’s be honest; my track record is terrible. You see the good parts, the ones I show you here. The people who know me see some of the rest. My therapist sees all of it, and word is that he’s going to need his own therapist now. I am a very bad person in many ways.

So I pray that it’s the trying that matters, the desperate striving, and throwing ourselves at the feet of grace. There is redemption in the striving, I think. I hope so, for my sake, for their sake, for yours. And I think there is.

On Key

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