Doing Something Right

Parenting can be like a lot of modern video games. It does not come packaged with any instructions, just a list of credits telling you who made what. The expectation is that you figure it out as you go along. You receive skill points (XP) for achievements, some parts are more challenging than others, and there is little motivation to go back and replay levels you previously conquered. You can get by with the basics, but to truly experience raising a child or playing a game, you have to find all of the hidden collectibles, earn each of the trophies, and unlock every upgrade. It can be expensive. Downloadable content (school clothes) and microtransactions (Christmas presents) greatly improve satisfaction; on their own they don't seem costly, but after a while the prices add up and look shameful in retrospect.

Did I just compare my kids to a $60 polycarbonate plastic disc filled with graphical and audio programming designed for digital entertainment? Maybe. It is a tenuous simile. However, as a mostly former gamer, I have slogged through some games with steep learning curves. I have hit the start button to dive into stories where the studios that created it expect the end user to know what they are doing with minimal explanation or instruction. This button jumps, that button interacts with objects, and the trigger uses your weapon. Good luck. You're on your own for IRL food, sleep, and potty breaks.

Yet even the most difficult game I have ever played is simple compared to the rigors of parenthood. As a trade off, being a dad is infinitely more rewarding than beating the final boss or reaching the end of the last world in any video game. At least, it is if you do it right.

The biggest challenge in parenting is wondering if your strategy is working. I think much of being a parent is composed of not knowing what you are doing while hoping for the best. Ideally, we reach out to some older/wiser types who have been there and done that. We listen to the advice of professionals who might know more than we do about areas of child rearing: teachers, pastors, counselors, therapists, our own parents. We read books and magazine articles. We try new things and go through the full process of failure and revision.

We do what we can with the tools we have been given. At the end of the day, we want greatness for the miniature humans entrusted into our care all with the intent of turning them into the closest semblance of a decent and productive adult before releasing them upon an unsuspecting world. We try. We try hard. Unfortunately, the fruits of our labor are rarely evident.

Every now and then, there are rewards. Achievements unlocked. It could be a friend telling you "You're a good dad." Or a teacher telling you "Your kid is amazing." And then there are moments you realize that your kids are turning out to be better than you ever anticipated.

Last Thursday, we were at the grocery store restocking our diminished supply of perishables. In other words, my kids ate all of the fruits and veggies and we needed more. While wandering through the produce section, we procured more bananas, strawberries, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, and grapes - all of the organic matter I know my kids will eat without prompting or hesitation. Somewhere between the plantains and the melons, Christian shared an observation.

"It's a shame." he said.
"What is?" I asked.
"All of this food. And so much of it is going to go to waste. I mean, there are homeless people who don't have anywhere they could go to get a meal."

After that explanation, Christian spent the next ten minutes detailing how unsold soon-to-expire groceries should go to food banks and homeless shelters and benefit those who need it most. This from a kid who aspires to be a comedian and novelist when he grows up.

Not to be out done, his younger brother demonstrated his own variation of kindness and generosity.

After church Sunday morning, our kids’ ministry director pulled me aside and said she needed to brag on J. Of course, she asked him if she could embarrass him by telling me a story. JJ granted her permission.

She explained how he already knew the activity that they were doing because he had done it before. And it would have been alright if he did it all over again. Instead, he decided to assist other kids that were struggling making their craft. He got up without being asked to do so and started helping the others in his age group. "Here, let me show you how to do it." After telling me how he did such a awesome job, she looked at JJ and asked him if he could do that again during the next service. He smiled big and nodded his head. Of course he would.

Moments like these make the rougher moments of parenthood worth it. It lets me know I am doing something right. But to be honest, I have no idea what that something is. I do not have any sage advice for other floundering parents out there. There is no formula that I can package and sell for other dads to replicate the amazing things my kids do. Realistically, it is a guessing game, not knowing if it works, and hoping for the best. In twenty years, if my kids are still trying to solve the world’s problems and seeking opportunity to help those in need, I will consider my job a smashing success.


The war between faith and doubt

In Believe, the second track of Grammatrain's debut album, Pete Stewart growled his way through one of my all-time favorite lyrics. “Some say that doubt's disappointing, but I say to question is to understand.” Between the rumbling bass heavy instrumentation, the punishing drum beats, and the final shouted line “I can't pretend to understand everything,” Believe was one of those songs that demanded it be played at full volume. If I go deaf someday, it might be due to this song pumping through my headphones at an obnoxious decibel level during my younger days as I walked from one MPHS classroom to another.

This concept of understanding that belief is impossible without doubt has become ingrained in the way I approach faith. It is a step by step process through which I have come to accept what I believe to be true.

To doubt is to question.
To question is to understand.
To understand is to know.
To know is to trust.
To trust is to believe.

For me, my doubts lead to belief. Perhaps this is a side effect of my analytical personality or my desire to know as many details as possible in any given situation. However, this also means my faith and my doubts are often at war with each other. There are days where my head and my heart don't get along. They spar in a great debate where the best rebuttal either can offer is “yes, but ... ” Even if I know something on an intellectual level, I don't always feel it.

It’s like my brain says “Makes sense,” then my heart says, “Sure, but...”
It’s like my brain says “This is the way it is,” and my heart says “I know, but...”
It’s like my brain says “Everything is going to be OK,” while my heart asks “What about...?”
It’s like my brain believes but my heart needs help believing.

In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, a father brought his son to the disciples asking for help; his son was mute and suffered from seizures. The best description they had was that the boy was possessed. When the disciples told the father they were unable to do what he wanted, Jesus asked them to bring the boy to Him. Jesus interviewed the father “What’s wrong? How long has this been happening?” As the father described his fear of losing his son’s life and the ailments his son faced since childhood, he posed the most timid of requests: “But if You can do anything … ”

Jesus responded, skeptical of the man’s faith. “If?”

Granted, if this man knew anything about Jesus, he would recognize the silliness of his question. Of course Jesus could do anything. He had been performing miracles everywhere he went. Before this troubled man ever asked for divine help, Jesus had been healing the sick, feeding thousands, and walking on water. Without hearing these stories – even second hand, he would not have had any reason to seek assistance from Jesus. But there he was, begging for pity.

Jesus’ reply seemed to ask “If? What do you mean if?” Then Jesus challenged the man, like he was telling him, “You can do better.”

Jesus said, “All things are possible to him who believes.”

And the man answered, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

I get this man. Of all of the characters in the Bible, I probably identify with this guy more than anyone else. All he wanted was what was best for his son and the stress of keeping the kid safe had to have been exhausting. He had tried everything and nothing worked. Then he heard about Jesus – a miracle working healer. He knew Jesus was the answer for which he had been searching. Yet, armed with that knowledge, he still had doubts. Instead of approaching Jesus with confidence and demanding “DO THIS!” the man came to Jesus reserved and unsure. “If you can do anything … ”

This man struggled in the war between faith and doubt, the battle between his head and his heart. I know what how he struggled. And when he told Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief,” I hear echoes of my own struggles. I see how I can simultaneously know everything and nothing. I understand what it is like to have all of the answers and none of the answers all at the same time. All I can do is say, “I believe, but I have doubts. I believe, help my unbelief.”

I know I am not alone in this tightrope walk. The sentiment has been expressed in many different forms so I realize my thoughts are unoriginal.

In Switchfoot’s song Sooner or Later, Jon Foreman sang “I'm a believer, help me believe.” Six years earlier, Adam Duritz penned the lyrics “Help me believe in anything, I want to be someone who believes” for the Counting Crows song Mr. Jones. When Steve Jobs contemplated life and death, he said “I’m about 50/50 on believing in God. For most of my life I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye. I’d like to believe that something survives after you die. But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch; click and you’re gone.”

In their own ways, both singers and the tech guru said the same thing: “I believe, but I have my doubts.”

I am in good company. While I cannot speak on the behalf of others, I know that my faith would not be as secure if it weren’t for my doubts. I believe, but sometimes I need a little help believing.

image courtesy of St Mark Lutheran Church