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By Brian Keepers
“So have you been doing much artwork lately?” my friend asked me as we sat on my back deck, watching our kids play. He knew that we had transformed an old Sunday school room in our church into an art studio as part of our “Artist in Residence” program, and he wondered how much time I’d been spending in it.
My first thought was, “Not nearly as much as I’d like.” The truth is, between the heavy demands of ministry and the busyness of our family’s schedule, it’s been a couple months since I’ve even stepped foot in the studio.
The combination of my friend’s question and seeing both of my daughters about to turn another year older has prompted some reflection on the gift and challenges of parenting. My wife, Tammy, and I have often said that parenting is one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever experienced. It is also one of the hardest. “Parenting is not for the faint of heart,” I’ve heard someone say.
Admittedly, most often what makes parenting so hard is the stuff that gets surfaced from deep within my own soul like sludge gets scraped up from the bottom of a lake or river. Parenting has a way of forcing you to confront your own brokenness and wounds, insecurities and fears. Not to mention your need for control. I want to be a good father and raise my girls right. I don’t want to mess this parenting thing up. The only problem is that “raising my girls right” often means trying to get them to meet all the hopes and expectations I have for them–to turn out the way I want them to be. I’m reminded of this haunting line from Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner: “Children are not color books; you don’t get to fill them in with your favorite colors.”
Parenting really is more art than science. Which is to say that there are no easy formulas or fool-proof methods. Like any art, you simply have to get your hands messy and do the best you can with the materials you’ve been given. It’s a delicate balance of learning to handle the materials in a purposeful way without imposing your will to the extent that you ruin the artwork. Every good artist knows that you risk damaging the piece when you overwork it and don’t let it emerge and surprise you.
A while ago I decided to take a ceramics class at our local arts council. I’d never worked with pottery and was curious to give it try. It was pretty much a disaster. But I learned so much from the class. Our instructor would gently remind us as we worked with the clay, “You have to hold your work loosely.” At any point the piece could collapse on the spinning wheel or crack in the kiln. “You can’t become too attached to your work,” she’d say. “So learn now to let go. Pottery will be so much more fun if you can learn to let go.” That’s good advice not just for making pottery but for rearing children. Actually, it’s good advice for all of life, don’t you think? It’s also much easier said than done.
Vincent van Gogh once described Jesus as “more of an artist than all the artists” because he works in “living flesh and living spirit” and has made “living people instead of statues.” This is what makes the art of parenting so invigorating and also so terrifying. I have a keen sense that I’m helping to shape two little persons. It is one thing to paint a picture or sketch a drawing or try your hand at the pottery wheel (and if you mess up, so what?); it’s another thing entirely to work with living souls. The stakes feel so much higher.
I recently came across this excerpt from a sermon by the great 4th century preacher, John Chrysostom, where he draws this analogy between parenting and the work of artists:
To each of you fathers and mothers I say, just as we see artists fashioning their paintings and statues with great precision, so we must care for these wondrous statues of ours. Painters when they have set the canvas on the easel paint on it day by day to accomplish their purpose. Sculptors, too, working in marble, proceed in a similar manner; they remove what is superfluous and add what is lacking. Even so you must proceed. Like the creators of statues do you give all your leisure to fashioning these wondrous statues for God.
That last line especially strikes me. Like creators of statues do you give all your leisure to fashioning these wondrous statues for God. These wondrous living statues, Van Gogh reminds us.
So yes, the stakes are high. But great is the grace of God. And the longer I’m a parent, the more assurance I find in God’s promises in the waters of baptism. Both of my girls belong to God in Christ. They are the Lord’s. I have a role to play in joining the Spirit’s work of sculpting them into the image of Jesus, but ultimately this is God’s work. God is the Master Sculptor; I am the apprentice. This reality gives me confidence and courage to keep at it, even when it seems hard or I feel like I’m failing. This reality is also helping me hold my children loosely because I can trust that they are held firmly in God’s good hands.
Fashioning these wondrous little statues is hard work, but it is good work. Dare I even say it is holy and glorious work? There are moments when I feel tired and wonder if I’m really up to the task. But there are far more moments when I’m overcome with gratitude for the way God has entrusted me with a part to play in helping sculpt their little lives. These are the moments when I realize that God is using my children to sculpt me just as much as he is using me to sculpt them.
We are sculpting each other, my children and I.
Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching at Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.