Getting the love we always wanted from the perfect parent we never had

When we were small, our parents were godlike to us. They had all power over us. We probably thought they had all power in the world.

This experience imprinted on us, and subconsciously we assume that God is like our parents. Better said, we project our parents onto God, and so expect God to treat us and the world like they did.

But nobody’s parents are perfect. Most lose their tempers or criticize their children unfairly from time to time. Many sometimes place unreasonable demands on their children, or punish them harshly, or control them with shame. Some parents abuse or neglect their children.

And so we may believe God watches over us with a critical eye and is never satisfied with anything we do. Or we may assume God is just waiting to turn his back on us when we screw up. Or we may think we need to work hard to earn God’s favor and love. Or we may figure that no matter what we do God’s not going to care about us anyway, and so we give up trying.

But God’s more like the perfect parent none of us ever had. He wants to see us grow up well. He never loses his temper or patience with us. He knows there is sometimes pain and difficulty in our lives, and he wants us to turn to him for comfort and encouragement through it so he can help us become stronger and more loving. He knows we make mistakes and sometimes even deliberately do the wrong thing, but he won’t turn his back on us, or shame us, or punish us no matter how bad it was.

At our cores, we all want to be loved. God wants to love us. Our fears that God will let us down in the way our parents did gets in the way of us simply accepting that love. We have to keep working on our relationship with God and over time come to see him as he truly is before we can simply accept the love he has for us.

If you are a parent, consider what a service to your children it would be if you modeled your parenting after the way God loves. Not only would your children feel your love for them more strongly, but it would make their image of God be so much closer to who he really is. It might help them more readily accept God into their lives.

When I turned to God, he showed me that love paves the way, and that to follow him all I have to do is hold up my hand for him to grasp.


It’s easier to cut with a sharp knife

I hang my most-used kitchen knives on the wall next to my sink so they’re always at hand. Use wears them down, of course. When they won’t glide right through a carrot or when a roasted chicken shreds rather than slices, I know it’s time to visit my father. Dad has wicked sharpening skills.

When Dad returns my sharpened knives he always says the same thing. “Now,” he begins, with an air of authority, “these knives are sharper than the day they left the factory. They will cut you deeply. You will probably see your blood before you feel any pain. But they are now safer than when you brought them to me. A dull knife tears rather than cuts. It is more dangerous because it can do more damage.”

It is obvious that a sharp knives work best. On the face of it, it seems just as obvious that a sharp person works best, but that’s been a hard lesson for me. I have pushed myself too hard for too long on many occasions, bringing on exhaustion so deep that recovery took weeks or even months. Maybe I’ve had a bit of a martyr complex. But fortunately, I’ve figured out taking good care of myself gives me the resources to be the man I want to be – kind, patient, giving, involved, and effective.

I guess most people find that middle age brings deeper self-insight, but I’ve found it startling just the same. Happily, that insight tells me how to stay sharp:

  • I need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. I can get by on less for a night or two, max.
  • I need to talk through things that trouble me, even small things. Just telling them to a friend helps, but it’s even better when my friend can ask questions and give feedback. I find that I grow closest to people with whom I can talk like this.
  • I need to hang out with bright, articulate people with whom I can have meaningful conversations.
  • I need to spend time with my sons. They’re my favorite people in the world. I like to have adventures with them, hear their stories, and just hang out with them around the house. Nobody makes me laugh more than my sons. I am at loose ends when I go more than a few days without seeing them.
  • I need to spend quality time at home almost every day. My home is the center of my world.
  • I need daily quiet meditative time. My thoughts and feelings run at a hundred miles an hour. They need a break, even if it’s for just ten minutes.
  • I need to sing. It’s cathartic.
  • I need to have personal projects that I can work on at my own pace. My career is full of discussing strategies, planning projects, building schedules, and driving deadlines. I seldom do “real work” anymore. Most of my personal projects involve working with my hands; they all involve producing a finished product. They’re not on deadline and I can put in whatever amount of effort satisfies me. They give me a feeling of having accomplished something.
  • I need hobbies that let me explore and learn. This is why I taught myself how to write code as a teenager and why I follow the old roads today. I find it exciting to build deep knowledge by discovering it through direct experience.
  • I need to get away every three to six months for a day or two. I pray and listen for guidance. I consider what’s going well and what’s making me unhappy. I review and adjust my goals and plans.

Sometimes life conspires to keep me from these things. Sometimes I fool myself into thinking I don’t need them. When it happens, I soon find myself tired and irritable. If I let it continue, my reserves are soon tapped and I risk depression and exhaustion.

Thanks to Tim Stevens, who through sharing his list on his LeadingSmart blog caused me to quantify my own list. And now I ask you the same question he asks at the end of his list: Do you know what you need to be whole, loving, and full of grace? I’d love to see your list in the comments or, even better, on your own blog with a link back here.

I usually recognize it when life is starting to back up on me. But when I don’t, my dog always lets me know. Find out how.

Personal, Stories Told

Reflections in the snow

The snowy season began a little early here in Indianapolis, with the first snowfalls in late December. We had a white Christmas for the first time in years. It snowed three times before I was able to shovel my driveway. The more my little car packed down the snow, the more it slipped and slid on the driveway’s slope.

As I cleared the driveway, I reflected on all the snows I shoveled during my childhood. South Bend, where I grew up, gets serious snow; in the winter, it wasn’t unusual for my brother and I to shovel the driveway and sidewalks four or five days a week, sometimes more than once a day. On snowy school days, the minute we came home Mom issued us our shovels. We sometimes complained – why couldn’t we just rest for a little while first? Why couldn’t we wait for Dad so he could help us? Mom always explained that Dad worked hard and so we were going to give him the opportunity to rest when he came home. She asked us to imagine how good he would feel to find a cleared driveway and sidewalk waiting for him when he arrived. She said that this was one way we could show Dad that we loved him.

I began to chop up the packed snow. My sons were at their mother’s, 20 miles away. I had a little pity party, wishing that I had had a happy marriage, the kind where my wife sent my sons out to clear my driveway before I got home. I would have liked to relax after work like my dad used to! But more importantly, I wished we had been a healthy family that could teach my sons valuable lessons about demonstrating love for others. Instead, while I was married we modeled acrimony and strife. Today, their mother and I model fragile détente.

I lamented the raw deal my sons got from their mother and me.

I know that every family has its rough edges and bad times. The family I grew up in was far from perfect – I could tell you stories! But we functioned reasonably well and there was love in our home. That love still binds us together; our shared values and our family way remain a source of comfort and strength. I wished that and more for my marriage and family.

But something good is coming out of this. While I was married I tended to create conditions similar to those of my upbringing whether or not they worked for my sons and wife. But now that I don’t see my sons every day, I can’t create those conditions. I have had to become creative in how I raise them, which leads me to continually evaluate and refine my approaches. I think I am more in tune with my sons’ needs and better able to meet them than I ever was while I was married.

Unfortunately, no amount of creativity will let me model for them how a man should love his wife, at least not while I’m single. Maybe I’ll be fortunate enough to remarry well, to someone my boys come to love, and show them before they’re grown and gone.

Another adjustment I had to make post-divorce was having so much time at home alone. Read that story.


Love paves the way

I once heard a recovered alcoholic tell his story. He was living in a shed, drinking every dollar he scrounged, and life did not look to be getting any better. He showed up at an AA clubhouse one day. “I’m not an alcoholic,” he told the man behind the counter. “I just want to sit and rest.” The man said, “You are entirely welcome to do that, and stay as long as you want. Would you like some coffee?” The alcoholic returned for several days, each day denying his alcoholism to the counterman. “I do drink too much sometimes, and buying booze always leaves me broke, but I’m not an alcoholic.” The man always smiled and said, “That’s fine. You’re welcome to sit here as long as you like.” After many more days sitting there sipping coffee, he stepped into a meeting. He kept coming back, found his higher power, and got sober. He credits the simple acceptance of the man behind the counter, an act of love that paved his path to God, who freed him from his slavery.

Thirty years ago, my brother used to get me to go with him to the elementary school’s playground to play basketball with the gang. I was lousy at basketball and didn’t much like everybody knowing it, but I was often bored enough to go anyway.

A group of slightly older kids, strangers to us, came to play one day. Their dark jeans, clean white sneakers, polo shirts, and neatly parted hair stood out sharply against our scruffy play clothes, dirty shoes, and messy hair. They seemed curiously overdressed for basketball, but they played well enough. When the game ended, stacks of religious tracts appeared in their hands. They said they were from the Community Baptist Church and they began to tell us about heaven and hell and how we had to accept Jesus Christ – today – or risk a tortured eternity.

I had never been evangelized before, and the pressure was high. “If you haven’t accepted Jesus into your heart, if you died today you’d go to hell, which the Bible calls the lake of fire! You would be in the lake of fire for all eternity! Can you imagine what that would be like? Won’t you pray with me right now to accept Jesus into your heart so you can be in heaven?” I was not going to be pressured and said no, I would not pray with him. He would not take no for an answer, and I eventually had to tell him to leave me alone. He wouldn’t, so I ignored him when he talked to me.

I learned that Christians want to seem superior to you and use fear and pressure to get you to go to their church. I was now not favorably disposed toward Christians.

A few years later, a friend of mine asked me to visit her church with her. She said she’d arrange to have the church bus come pick me up on Sunday. I didn’t know where she went to church, but I had not forgotten my past experience with Community Baptist Church when their bus pulled up. I felt on my guard, but everybody was friendly and the morning went fine. Eight days later, however, three high school boys rang our doorbell and asked for me. They wanted to know why I hadn’t been to church the day before. I said that I just visited that one time with my friend. They said, “God wants us to worship him every Sunday. Don’t you want to worship the Lord?” I didn’t know what to say. I thought I had just gone to visit with my friend one time, but they acted like they expected me to come back every week. I don’t remember how I got them to go away. But they were back the next week, and I stammered through trying to tell them no. My dad came to the door and told them I didn’t want to come back to their church and that they should take no for an answer. They came again the next week anyway, this time with an adult. Dad told them that if they ever returned, he’d get a lawyer and sue them for harassment. We didn’t see them again.

When I was in college, I thought it was funny how you could always spot the Bible thumpers by their neatly parted hair, dark jeans, polo shirts, and clean sneakers. Did they buy their uniforms from the same place? One of the so uniformed lived on my floor. I think his name was Mark. I steered clear as much as I could, but one day I couldn’t avoid him and he struck up a conversation with me. Fearing high pressure, I stiffened and gave him one-syllable answers. But then I realized he wasn’t talking about God or hell or church. He was just talking. And so I didn’t work so hard to steer clear. He talked to me a few more times, and I began to respond in complete sentences. Just as I thought he might be all right, he said, “Hey, you know I’m a Christian. I like to talk about it with people. Would you be willing?”

Fear stabbed at me. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t want to be pressured about God.”

“Whoa, don’t worry. I’m not going to try to push you into anything you don’t want. It’s just that I’ve found that following Jesus is pretty good. It’s made a big difference in my life. I think it can make a big difference in everyone’s lives.”

We ended up meeting for an hour for each of the next several weeks. As I loosened up, I asked him questions about God and about his faith. He told me how it was for him to start on God’s path, how he still messed it up a lot, but how God had been patient with him. He told me that God would be just as patient with me, and that he wanted me just as I was. He asked me about what fears I had about starting on that path. My fears were considerable, and I was not ready to give them up. And so our talks came to an end.

But as the counterman at the AA clubhouse did for the alcoholic, Mark made me feel welcome and accepted at the edge of surrender. When I was ready to take that step years later, Mark had given me a good idea of how to find the path God had prepared for me. Because of Mark, I knew that I should look for simple acceptance, because it was evidence that God’s love was present.

Wherever you are, Mark, thanks, man. I hope to live up to your example.