“My child was born just the other day. He came into the world in the usual way. But there were planes to catch and bills to pay, he learned to walk while I was away. And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew he said, ‘I’m gonna be like you dad, you know I’m gonna be like you.’ “My child turned ten just the other day. He said, ‘Thanks for the ball, Dad, c’mon let’s play. Can you teach me to throw?’ I said, ‘Not today. Got a lot to do.’ He said, ‘That’s okay.’ And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed, he said, ‘I’m gonna be like him, yeah. You know I’m gonna be like him.’ ” And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon. ‘When you coming home, Dad?’ ‘I don’t know when. But we’ll get together then, son. You know we’ll have a good time then.’ ”
When, as a teenager, I first heard those words sung by the prophet Harry Chapin, I thought of them as just a song on the radio. But when the blessing of two little lives came squalling into my existence simultaneously I started thinking of that song as an accusation. The song has continued to represent for me a challenge as a father and as a husband. For I cannot but wonder how often amidst my busy schedule my spouse and my children have come to me seeking my time and attention, only to find that I considered myself too busy to give it.
I often think of an observation penned by a noted psychiatrist attending a Christmas play in which a young girl had a small role that she played with gusto. The psychiatrist watched the little girl bound off the stage at the end of the performance seeking a gushing review from her father, only to find him engaged in a conversation with a business associate. In her enthusiasm she couldn’t help but interrupt by pulling on her dad’s pants leg. The father responded, “Not now, dear, can’t you see I’m talking to Mr. Green!” With that, the psychiatrist watched the little girl shrivel up, her zest drained. It was like she had dialed her father with an important phone call, and all she’d received was a busy signal.
I wonder: how many children, how many spouses, try to dial their father’s or their husband’s attention, only to gain the distinct impression that their father or their spouse is too busy to love them? How many times will they dial the attention of someone they love and receive a busy signal in return? How many times as parents and as spouses do we withhold from loved ones the most precious resource we have to offer – our time?
When my daughter took her first full-time engineering job, it was not long before people discovered that her parents were both ministers. Someone said to her, “Well, in my experience, preachers’ kids fall into one of two categories: they are either as wild as March hares or they are uptight, prim and proper. Which one are you?” Clara responded forcefully, “Neither. Our parents raised us to be normal.” If true, that answer, I confess, is more due to her mother’s nurturing influence than mine. When people ask me why preachers’ kids grow up the way they do, I say it is because they play with the deacons’ kids. But I suspect a more likely answer is that a preacher’s children, like the offspring of other high-profile professions, find their parents too busy to raise them. They receive too many busy signals. A preacher’s kids must compete for attention with the needs of God’s people, and that’s a contest they cannot win. I remember the first time, many years ago, when I tried composing a sermon on this theme: as I worked, a little boy climbed up on my lap and proceeded to tap on the keyboard that I seemed to regard as so important. Meanwhile, his brother had just discovered that he was just large enough to climb up on the coffee table and walk across it. Even my golden retriever was bringing me balls to throw. I was thinking, ‘I can’t handle all of these interruptions.’ But then I realized, their needs were what was most important. They were trying to save me from committing the very sin I was preaching against, emitting nothing but busy signals.
Good parenting requires the investment of time. If you are lucky, God grants you seventeen or eighteen years to mold and equip young lives before sending them out into the world. It’s an exciting but frightening task. Every parent and every grandparent has to figure out how to arrange their lives to fit children and grandchildren into their schedule. Or rather, we wonder, how do we arrange our lives to fit into their schedules? Every parent, every grandparent, every spouse must ask, ‘How do I balance the needs of those who are closest to me over against a dozen other worthy claims upon my time? And how much of own freedom am I willing to surrender to invest in the lives of those I care about most?’
Good parenting, good grandparenting, and good marriages require the investment of time, and paying that price of love is costly — but not doing it is even costlier. King David was extraordinarily gifted in many ways, but he was a horrible parent. King David thought he was too busy to give time to his son Absalom. Absalom came to hate his father so much that he started a revolt against him that almost cost David his kingdom and did cost him the life of his son. One of the most pitiable, painful scenes in the Bible is David looking down at his lifeless son and crying, “Ah, Absalom, Absalom, would that I had died instead of you!” But his life was not required of David. All he needed to give his son was his time. And he didn’t do it.
There is a real danger for parents – and grandparents – to succumb to the temptation to give children things instead of love. We are tempted to offer material substitutes for the gift that matters most, our undivided attention. One summer I was a RA camp counselor, and almost every week a kid would come to me about mid-week complaining of a stomachache. Generally, it meant he was homesick. Often it would turn out that this was the kid’s third or fourth summer camp in as many weeks, because his parents considered the cost of camp cheaper than the cost of parenting. Over the years, I have discovered that most of the troubled children I have counseled had a highly developed sense of materialism. Ask them their motivation for doing a good deed and they would say, “Because Mama has promised to give me this,” or “Dad has promised to buy me that.” I would ask them, “Don’t you want to do something just because it’s the right thing to do, or because you want to help someone else?” They would respond with profound puzzlement. Their parents had substituted things for love so long that the children could not distinguish between the two.
Busy signals. Great parents are great listeners – but busy people tend not to be very good listeners. Busy people prefer to talk more than listen, which doesn’t make for good parenting or good grandparenting – or being a good spouse. The movie The Hunt for Red October featured a young black naval communications officer who deciphered the sundry noises picked up by eavesdropping devices. While everyone else speculated on what’s going on, this young man clarified the situation by discerning the significance of sounds. That’s a skill good parents have, too. An effective parent can hear a child asking questions about God, death, and heaven and perceive that something serious is on the child’s mind. An effective parent hears a child say repeatedly, “I hate to read,” and realizes that the child is really saying, “I don’t think I’m as smart as other kids.” An effective parent hears in a child’s uncharacteristic tantrum a tacit cry for affection and tenderness. An effective parent listens to the child’s plea to be there for a ball game, to read a story, to buy an ice cream, and knows that behind those pleas is a cry for companionship and approval. Yet, so often our busy signals keep us from hearing what we should. Noted pastor Gordon MacDonald once asked his oldest son to accompany him on an errand. The boy agreed to go, then sulked when the father invited his younger brother to tag along. The father chastised the older boy for being selfish. Only later did the father learn that the older boy really needed time to talk to his father alone about a serious subject. Macdonald admitted that the sin he’d been so eager to rebuke was actually an honest cry for attention that he’d been too deaf to hear.
When I was a young parent I devoured a number of books on parenting and found that they all stressed approachability. Then I realized that Jesus had understood this truth a long time ago. When his disciples tried to turn children away from him, when they considered them too unimportant to command Jesus’ time, Jesus demanded that the children be allowed into his presence. Jesus reminded the disciples that each child is of infinite value to God. He saw each child as a paradigm of a true believer, a paradigm of those who enter the Kingdom of God. Indeed, Jesus said that people who do not treasure children as God’s great gift — who don’t give children enough, love, time, faith, attention and spiritual guidance — will one day receive God’s stern judgment. It would be better for such people if millstones were tied around their necks and they were cast into the sea. Our Lord challenges all of us as parents, grandparents, and as mentors to accept our privileged role as stewards of young lives. We must take this responsibility with utmost seriousness, for indeed, it is our children who can teach us how we are to behave in order to enter the Kingdom of God.
James Boswell, famed biographer of Samuel Johnson, talked all his life of a special day when his father took him fishing. He identified that day as among his life’s most pivotal moments. An enterprising Boswell scholar actually found Boswell’s father’s diary and turned to the day that his son had talked about incessantly. The entry read: “Took my son fishing. A wasted day.” Will any parent or grandparent ever learn that no day spent with their child is wasted? Sometimes the little things that we do with them and for them become the most important. And the more we allow our children to share with us, the more they are willing to share. No time spent with a child is squandered! “Took my son fishing. A wasted day.”
Ultimately, the most important question any parent or grandparent must ask themselves is, ‘Have I truly equipped my children with the spiritual gifts they will need to thrive in life and build a strong faith?’ It is important to ask, ‘Have I taken the steps in my own life and in the living of my own faith to plant seeds of faith in my children’s and grandchildren’s lives and have I nurtured those seeds properly?’ I have seen a host of parents meet the physical, emotional, and financial needs of their children but leave their spiritual needs unfulfilled. I’ve seen plenty of parents move heaven and earth to make sure that their children attended every sporting practice and event, only to give church events the mere scraps of their schedule. But the truth is, all of those trophies the kids will win in their athletic endeavors will eventually collect dust on a shelf and end up in a box that’s thrown away, while spiritual seeds, if properly cultivated, will bear spiritual fruit that can nurture children for a lifetime. There can be no greater joy for a parent or grandparent than to see their child or grandchild come to a saving faith in Christ, be baptized into Christ’s fellowship, and embark on the path of spiritual maturity. But what a painful experience it is to watch a child grow up without any meaningful spiritual orientation, and to lose their way in life as they move forward, causing that parent or grandparent to ask the gut-wrenching question, “Where did I go wrong?”
Thirty–three years ago, when I first learned that Melissa and I were going to be blessed with twin boys, I thought of the story of the boy who prayed to God for months that God would bless him by letting the most beautiful girl on campus go with him to the dance. Finally, he asked the girl to the dance and she accepted. Then the boy remembered that he didn’t know how to dance. So, too, Melissa and I prayed for children to come into our lives. We had experienced infertility issues, had lost a baby to miscarriage, and we were beginning to wonder if we would ever become parents – and then we were blessed with twins – and then less than two years later we were blessed with a daughter. I suddenly realized I had been praying for children to come into our lives – and I didn’t really know how to be a parent. I have spent the ensuing decades praying for God’s grace daily to grant me understanding on how to nurture young lives. For I realized that nurturing young lives is one of God’s great and precious blessings. And, as Harry Chapin noted, there will come a day of reckoning.
“I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away. I called him up just the other day. I said, ‘I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.’ He said, ‘I’d love to, Dad, if I could find the time. But the new job’s a hassle and the kids got the flu, but it’s been sure nice talking to you, Dad; it’s been sure nice talking to you.’ And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me, my boy was just like me. He’d grown up just like me. “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon. ‘When you coming home, son?’ ‘I don’t know when. But we’ll get together then, dad. You know we’ll have a good time then.’ ” May we pray.