There are people out there with more than four kids. I just think I should point that out. It might be crazy to have lots of kids. But I have less than some folks, ok?
Four. That’s 80 finger- and toenails to clip. That’s so much macaroni and cheese to cook. That’s a billion Legos to pick up off the floor every night. Yeah, sure, we should make the kids clean those up. Often we do. But when it is 8:15 and you have to have a break, picking up a billion Legos sometimes feels more manageable that breaking up one more fight or risking that someone will eat another treat after the teeth have been brushed.
I don’t know what is harder: being a father of four, or being one of those kids who has to be fathered by a father of four. Nowhere is my weakness, impatience, and downright sinfulness more exposed than in my fatherhood. The worst moments are when I yell at everyone to be quiet at bedtime so I can read them a Bible story about Jesus who kindly welcomed little children.
It is also possible that at times, fatherhood is when I am at my best. Maybe.
Not this past Monday.
My wife has been working to help pay for the massive expenses of my theological studies here in England. Monday is her office day, so instead of the enormous amount of reading I have to begin in Barth’s Dogmatics, my task is to make the school run. Like my grandparents in bygone days of lore, kids walk to school in England (well, for the most part).
We are late when we leave. (We are always late). The two “little kids” are loaded into the double stroller. “Big kids, let’s go… c’mon, we’re late!”
“But I wanted to ride my scooter today!” This is from the 6-yr old. A boy. A boy who longs for the speed and thrill of wheeled transport, for the rush of wind in his red hair.
“I know buddy, but we can’t take the scooter because I will have to carry it the whole way to the preschool and back after I drop you off. I just can’t do it with this stroller. C’mon, hurry!”
The baby is in the front of the stroller. She is always in the lead position of our pack because I am her propulsion, and I always go faster than the kids, my longer legs loping in strides twice that of the oldest one. Like a helpless thing strapped to the front of a raging locomotive, this baby fords every path. She doesn’t seem to mind. On the left is a busy highway. Cars, vans and lorries are whipping past. On the right are homes and a rolling countryside of iridescent green.
The 3-yr old sits in the stroller behind his baby sister. He is trying to tell me something as we steam onward. “What, sweetheart?” I try to lean toward him. “What?” Finally, having no idea what he is saying, I just offer, “Oh, that’s nice. Yeah, I see.” Empty, insincere words parents give their kids when they are distracted. But it is nicer than ignoring the little guy entirely and I can’t take the time to stop and get the audible replay.
“Hey, you have to catch up!” The 6-yr old is lagging behind. He is mad about the scooter. Vehicles whiz past, just 6 feet away from him. I want him close so I can keep him alive. He wants to be distant so he can convey his anger about the scooter. Two emotions tear at him: the desire to please his dad, and the desire to punish his dad.
The 9-yr old loves it that she is not in trouble and that her brother now is. She curiously gets sweeter and nicer in these moments, dramatizing the contrast between herself and her sibling.
“Son, you have to catch up. No more of this attitude or I’ll not let you ride the scooter anymore this week. NOW!” There are sheep out in the green fields and the blustery wind is tossing his sunset-red hair. In spite of his pouting lips and downward-tipped head, he is a thing of beauty out here.
The 3-yr old is saying something again. “Oh, okay, fella.” The baby is still charging onward, no concern at all for what force propels her, steers her, brakes her. No worries about the racing flood of incoming traffic into which she does not go because of my invisible (to her) hands on the shaft of that stroller.
The wind is exhilarating. Lord, You are so beautiful. But I hate being late. Lord, I’m sorry, please forgive me (and is my hairline receding? There was a lot of forehead this morning in the mirror…).
We had bolted past something gross on the pavement. The oldest sees it. But I am not looking. I know that a lady is about to walk into an courtyard full of kids and ring a bell indicating the start of the school day. I’ve got a bell to beat.
“Seriously, Dad, you gotta see this!” Something about a slug and glowing green guts. I don’t stop.
The oldest boy is still upset. We’ve gone about a mile. A scooter-less mile. I still have four more to go with this stroller after that bell rings and all my older kids can think about are exploded slugs and the dismal absence of a scooter. The baby is sucking her thumb and watching the wide world unfold beneath the spinning spokes of a costly stroller.
Maneuvering it is so hard over the humps and bumps, around the other school kids (some on scooters) and through the crosswalks. But we make it just in time. The lady is ringing that bell and my kids line up. I hope the 6-yr old is not so devastated over the scooter that he can’t enjoy his day. Gosh, I have so much Barth to read.
But now there are four more miles. The 3-yr old’s preschool begins in 5 minutes and it is 1.6 miles away (well, 1.5 with the shortcut my wife told me about).
The shortcut is a steep path cut through a wooded area. It is slick and dangerous. I make sure the strap we have rigged to the stroller’s handlebars is wound about my wrist. The little boy disembarks so I have less weight to hold back from slippage down the hill. Here we go. I am holding his hand and also the stroller. He slips and falls. We regain balance. Then he stops.
“Dad! Look at that beautiful feather!”
Seriously, what about my hairline? I am way too stressed. “Yeah, that’s lovely, son. But let’s not pick it up, ok?” I hate being late.
We make it back to the road, which weaves us alongside a wall of old stones that have been sucking in the moist British air for eons. At one point I have to launch the stroller off the sidewalk into the road to pass someone. I am not sure if the preschool has a bell to ring, but I know I am late.
We drop him off. He scuttles into this sweet, dreamlike little school wearing a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack. Then its just me and the baby. I have to pick up a fax at the Theology Department. The crossbridge over the river is under repair, so the journey is lengthened. If she falls asleep in the stroller then she may not take the nap I need her to take when we get home so I can read out of Karl Barth.
We arrive at the base of a colossal cathedral. It’s been here for ten centuries. I let the baby out so we can go through the wide green door of the Theology Department next to the cathedral.
The fax has not arrived.
We leave, and, disappointed about the fax, I let the baby lead the way for a bit. She can walk (but she’s still my baby, you hear?). And when she walks, she picks a trajectory without any discernible rhyme or reason and just bolts. In spite of her brisk steps, though, my slow strides are faster. So I am forced to slow down for a bit. The cathedral is behind me. 2-1/2 miles away is a red-haired boy who has now forgotten about his scooter and a 9-yr old who may well be the most beautiful creature on the planet. A small potty-training 3-yr old is not too far from us, squeezing his way through toddlers to get to the preschool’s toy kitchen (his favorite). And my baby girl is taking my hand. It is her turn to steer, brake, propel.
And a little child shall lead them.
Theology demands such full attention, but the old libraries and the hefty books are not the only places and sources for learning about God… the God who made that beautiful feather on the steep path. The God who fashions sunset-red hair, who knows every hair that falls from my head (even if I am just vainly neurotic and imaging the receding hairline). The God who propels, steers and brakes my own journey with invisible hands. The God who appoints a little child to lead me.
I have another mile to go. But for the moment, I follow the child….