Raw Grief, Holy Hilarity, and Stubborn Grace

“This book is the story of how we reclaim the things that are lost.  It’s also the story of how a home can become sacred, and how in the process it can sanctify us as well. I can tell you these things because I have been in dark places—which is the only way any of us learns to love the light. . . . Home is . . . where we learn grace . . . where we find or lose God, or perhaps where He finds us if we will only be still long enough to listen.”  (Tony Woodlief, Somewhere More Holy, p. 32)

So ends Tony Woodlief’s introduction to his amazing book, Somewhere More Holy.  It’s the first book I’ve read this year, and I already know it will be at the top of my list of 2012 favorites.  My daughter gave it to me for Christmas, and I began to love it the minute I skimmed through the first few pages.

For starters, it opens with a quote from Frederick Buechner. You know a book can’t be all bad, beginning with Buechner.  I also like the fact that each chapter begins with excerpts from other favorite authors of mine.  But it was really an author completely new to me—Tony Woodlief—who captured my attention with his first words and never really let me go until the end.  Actually, I was very sorry to come to the end.

The book is a story that weaves together many stories.  Stories from, as the cover tells us, “a bewildered father, stumbling husband, reluctant handy man, and prodigal son.”  It is the story of deep loss.  Probably the deepest loss any parent can experience—the loss of a child, a beautiful, exuberant little 3-year-old robbed of the rest of her earthly life by a brain tumor.  Excruciating loss and pain.

It is also the story of some almost-losses: of a marriage, of father-son relationships, and of the ultimate Father-Son relationship with God.  Woodlief recounts these  losses and almost-losses with raw authenticity.  Reader be cautioned: have tissues at the ready.

But it is also a story of hope and hilarity and, as Woodlief says in my beginning quote, reclaiming the things that are lost.  The author has a rare ability to juxtapose joy and sorrow, the eternal and the everyday, the marvelous and the mundane, in ways that constantly catch the reader by surprise.  Reading the book feels like riding a roller coaster.  You never know where the next twist or turn will take you.  And oh, those heart-stopping drops!

Woodlief is a really good writer.  He’s also very very funny.  Never have I read a book that took me from laughter to tears so unsuspectingly.  There are—believe it or not—tons of LOL ("laughing out loud" for any non-texters) moments when Woodlief  recounts parenting adventures with his four wild and wooly little boys.  More than once my husband looked up at me from his football game while I was reading the book, wondering why I was laughing so hard.

Amidst the laughter and the tears, it’s also a great parenting book.  The author takes us through various rooms in the Woodlief home where there have been lessons aplenty in marriage and parenting that he shares with humor, humility, and hope.  Side note: you’ve got to love some of his chapter titles—e.g. “Where the Wild Things Are” for the chapter on the boys’ rooms.

Ultimately, Somewhere More Holy is the story of grace—God’s stubborn, abounding, relentless, amazing grace.  Just what a mom needs more than anything else.  Just what this mom needed more than anything else.  Thank you, Tony Woodlief, for reminding us.  And please, write more books!

Thoughts on Father’s Day

Sunday is Father’s Day, and I have been thinking a lot about fathers lately. Like Mother’s Day, this holiday often raises a flood of mixed feelings. One friend of mine is mourning the recent loss of her very precious dad. He was probably, next to her husband, her best friend. Others mourn the father they always wished they’d had—or the one they never really got to know. Still others find themselves wishing that their children had a father in their lives—or a different father, one who really cared about his children and let them know it.

Yet many of us have been blessed to have wonderful fathers. And blessed to be married to men who are fabulous dads. The two dads I’ve known best—my own father and then Woody, the father of my children—have both been wonderful fathers. And as I celebrate them in my heart this Father’s Day, I am struck by what very different personalities fathers can have and yet be great fathers.

What is it, actually, that children need most in a dad? Put in the simplest words, I think kids need to know two things: That Dad loves God, and that Dad loves them. Fathers may communicate these things in a host of different ways.

When I think of my own father, whose birthday was this past week and who went to be with Jesus nearly five years ago, three pictures immediately spring to mind: a living room chair, a dining room table, and an open door in a study at the top of the stairs. Some of my earliest memories involve mornings when I would get up early and tip-toe into our tiny living room. There, on his knees at a worn chair in the corner, would be my dad, beginning his morning with his God. It was the way each day started. And we knew how important his God was to him. I never knew just what he talked to God about. But I bet my brother and I figured into the conversation.

A second memory is the lively conversations that occurred around our dining room table in another house when I was in my early teens. My brother and I both tended to have lots of questions about all kinds of things—and strong opinions as well. I particularly remember one time when I had listened to a teacher who seemed to know all about the end times, and could explain everything with pictures and charts as well. As I was enlightening my family on this mysterious subject, my dad, who was a Bible scholar, an ordained minister, a professor, and a highly educated man, listened respectfully for a really long time before he began to ask me questions. Of course I couldn’t answer them, and the dangers of oversimplifying were rapidly revealed. But Dad never rejected our questions. He listened, he asked questions of his own, and he loved us with a no-matter-what love through it all.

In a third house where we lived in my older teen years, I remember Dad’s study at the top of the stairs. The door was always open. You could tell that no matter what he was doing, he was just hoping that my brother and I would pop in on our way up the stairs and flop into the chair opposite from him and tell him about our day. He always seemed so interested in what we were doing, so proud of us, cheering us on through any and every thing that came along. Clearly, my dad loved God deeply. But I wonder how much of that love he would have passed along to us if he had not so clearly loved and cared about us.

My own children are fortunate to have a dad who loves God with all his heart and who loves them, his children and their spouses and his grandchildren, passionately. Yet Woody’s ways of expressing this have been completely different.

Instead of being on his knees at a “prayer chair” in the morning, he has been in the hospital making rounds. But before he leaves, he always makes his own rounds through their rooms (in the past, patting their sleeping bodies; now, patting the stuffed animals representing them in the rooms they sometimes visit), praying for each of them and their families. And he prays for them on the way to work, often Jesus’ “John 17 prayer”—that they will learn to live well “in the world but not of it.”

Woody was not often home at dinner time, either, when the kids were young. Nor was he sitting at a desk in a study when they came home from school. But he was there for them in the deepest sense of the word—and they knew it. They have memories of his showing up at nearly every game they ever played—not usually at the beginning, but as soon as he could possibly get away from his office full of patients. They have memories of Saturday morning trips (several a month, usually, the ones not on call) to the rocks off the coast of Gloucester to make imaginary villages in the tide. To the Concord River to throw pebbles or branches as far as they could into the current. To the sledding hill to attempt “death defying” descents (almost literally, in one case with Lars) no matter how icy the slopes. Daddy was fun! Daddy was a little dangerous at times (What mother would take her kids up on the roof one fine Saturday?!) But above all, Dad loved God. And Dad loved them. And they knew it!

My father and my children’s father: Two very different men. But in completely different ways, they gave their children the same message: I love God, and I want you to. And I love you—always and forever.

Which brings me to the really good news about Father’s Day. Whatever dad you—or your children—do or do not have, you (and they!) have a Father who will love them always and forever. Perhaps the verse Woody often typed and laminated for our kids when they were in college, on mission trips, or moving into a new venture sums it up: “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in Him, for he shields [them] all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.” (Deuteronomy 33:12)

Sounds like a Father to me!

How Do You Get Dad More Involved?

I promised to share with you some great “mom questions” I’ve been asked over the past few weeks.  So here goes with the first one! A number of moms have asked how they can get their husbands more involved in the parenting of their kids.  Common complaints include:  “He just wants to be a playmate, leaving all the discipline to me.”  Or: “He really just wants to do his own thing and not get involved at all in day-to-day caregiving.”

Good question!  And not an easy one to answer.  As I thought about it, I happened to be visiting one of our sons, so I thought I’d get his male perspective on the issue.  He happens to be a very involved Dad himself.  But I asked him what advice he’d give other moms as to how to get their husbands more involved.

His first response put things into stark perspective.  “That’s really a hard one, because we all are basically selfish and want to do our own thing.”  [BTW, by “we,” I don’t think he meant just men.  All of us are basically selfish, though I do think moms get a lot of day-to-day practice in becoming selfless!]  He went on to say that a lot of the men he knows seem to be a lot more focused on their own leisure pursuits than on their time with family.

An uphill battle, for sure—at least in some cases.  And the hard part about it is that, as we say so often at Mom to Mom, the only person you have power to change is YOU.  You really can’t make another person do anything.

Having said that, here are a few tips I’ve gleaned along the way—some from my own observation and experience and some from a great group of moms who dove into this question along with me:

  1. PRAY about it—first, last, and always.  Pray especially before speaking about it with your husband.  How you approach it can make all the difference!
  2. Watch your attitude!  Some of us women are particularly gifted with “attitude,” and if, like me, you are also gifted in sarcasm, watch it.  Another point of prayer….
  3. Use “I….” statements rather than “YOU…” accusations.  “I feel,” “I need,” “I miss,” “I want your input” are far more effective than “YOU always…” or “You never…”  But do tell him what you need, rather than “stuffing it” and letting it smoulder.
  4. Use fewer words rather than many (and this from Linda!)  When it comes to men and words, less is more, believe me!
  5. Help your husband see the difference he makes for your children—and you!  For example, “Honey, he so looks up to you. “ or “She’s just watching for you to notice” or “We just love having you home—and a part of these projects.”
  6. Create opportunities for successful interaction.  Sometimes we get so used to “doing everything” that we don’t even leave space for him.
  7. Avoid a constant critique of everything he does—e.g., he went to the store but bought the wrong brand, he put the baby to bed but put on the wrong PJ’s, he never sets the table right. (Ouch!  But honestly, Woody does still get the fork and knife sides reversed—is it male dyslexia?)
  8. “Change your thinking.”  This from one mom who said she finds she needs to refocus periodically to see what her husband actually does do to help, rather than only what he doesn’t do.
  9. Affirm whenever you can.  Let your husband know, at every opportunity, the things you appreciate about him.  One mom shared how an older wiser woman with whom she would sometimes share her “husband complaints” would always begin by asking: ”Have you made the list?”  The list, that is, of all you love about him—even before the “complaint list” that may come more naturally to us.
  10. Pray some more.  Let “Lord, change him” become “Lord, change me.”  And sometimes—not always, but sometimes—he will change, too.

Not an easy question.  But maybe some of you have something to add.  We’d love to hear from you!