Voices

What they teach us

Learning from children two hard lessons: faith and humility

Issue: "Fixing Islam," June 16, 2007

My wife and I attended that blessed event recently: the child-free dinner party. Even when your children are out of sight, however, they aren't out of mind, as when our hostess invoked Christ's admonition: Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. How, she asked, are you learning faith from your children?

I've been considering what they have taught me, the boys who are living as well as the girl who died. Humility comes quickly to mind. No matter how lofty one's discourse with guests, there is an instant leveling effect when one's 2-year-old bellows from the bathroom: "D-A-A-A-D! WIPE ME!"

Sometimes the lesson is less direct. I remember visiting a public restroom with my then 5-year-old, Caleb, and fussing at him, as I dried my hands, for dawdling. "I'm sorry Daddy," he said. "I was holding open the door for that man with the walkie thing." He was referring to the old man using a walker, the one I'd noticed in my peripheral vision but hadn't thought to help, set as I was on bathroom efficiency.

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My daughter taught me the deepest humility, at least for a man, which is knowing I can't always protect what I love. Her tumor was a murderous intruder, but I couldn't kill it. I could only watch and pray and grieve. She was the one who reminded us, as we held her and wept after learning there would be no cure, that "God says don't worry about tomorrow." Out of the mouth of babes . . . you have perfected praise.

And humility, it seems, is a pen in the authoring of faith. Isn't it strange how our heads can know a truth, and yet our hearts can remain ignorant until something presses it deeply into us? Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Christ established this connection between humility and faith, yet when I became a Christian 10 years ago, I was absorbed for a time with my sanctity and correctness. I didn't always sit up front, but in my proud heart I was a front-pew Christian. Look at me Lord-aren't you glad I'm not like some of these others?

It took burying a child, and birthing three more, and countless dark sins along the way, to learn how deep pride can run, and that it sloughs off faith. I sit in the back row now, not simply because each boy will require at least one bathroom trip during any given church service, but also as a reminder that I have just barely made it in the door. Perhaps we've all just barely made it in. And yet we are welcomed to the feast, prodigal sons and daughters each of us.

All these memories have come to me since that dinner, but when our hostess asked her question, my immediate thought was how easily my children believe tomorrow will be better. Sometimes, after a day of barking and griping at them, I am filled with shame. I kneel beside their beds, each in turn, and kiss their faces. I ask them to forgive Daddy for being a big grump, and they always do. I tell them tomorrow will be better, and they always believe me. My daughter did, too, as I whispered to her that Jesus would make it all better. Some think a child's faith is fragile, but I have seen a child believe unto death. Is my faith that strong?

It seems like losing child-like faith defines our passage into adulthood. Only a fool or a child would believe, in the face of daily wounds and sins, that tomorrow will be better. Grow up, is what we say, when we want someone to see the world as it is, not as it is promised to become. But grace grips us in its gentle, relentless hands, and we are told to go back to childhood, to relearn a faith the world has slowly constricted. I whisper, It will be better tomorrow, sweetheart, and my children believe. Somewhere in their expectant faces, as they nod and smile and forgive, is the kingdom of heaven. This is why sometimes I hold their faces and search for that faith I am relearning, and pray it will never leave them.

-Tony Woodlief lives in Wichita, Kan., with his wife and three sons

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