Practicing Parents

Working the Space

practicing families front porch

William Willimon, in the introduction to his book Pastor, says something that I can only imagine would connect with a lot of pastors like myself:

Seminarians are forever complaining about the gap between their expectations for the church, as engendered in seminary, and the reality of the church they experience as new pastors. That gap between the sociological reality of the church and the theological vocation of the church is necessary and even admirable. It is part of the pastor’s vocation to keep working that space, to keep noting that gap between who the church is and who the church ought, by God’s grace, to be-and will, by God, be someday.[1]

Beyond the powerful message contained here for pastors in ministry, I also hear echos of my struggle as a parent as well. I “work a space” between how the songs, poems, and gray-haired ladies say I’m supposed to approach parenting and how I often feel. I can fully relate to the apostle Paul’s struggle to be who he wants to be (Romans 7:15-20), especially parenting. In particular I’m talking about the need to have perspective vs. being in the thick of things.

I never understood the lyrics of Lonestar’s song “My Front Porch Looking In”…until I became a parent. The view from my front porch is great. I can get home from work, look in, and see a boy running around with his light saber, rushing to save the day. It makes me smile. I can look in and see a little girl—who looks especially cute with pigtails—dancing and twirling in her princess dress and can barely contain the urge to go in and give her a kiss. I can look in and see my wife, looking more beautiful every day, hard at work in the house and think to myself, ‘I am so lucky.’

But then I go inside.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong or unusual with my family. It’s not them, it’s me. Once I cross the threshold, I go from being the appreciative observer with perspective to an emotionally-fused part of the system. All of a sudden, the house is too loud and I’m annoyed that my son is asking me to play with him before I can even change clothes and take a breath. I open the bills, trip over a toy, and start to help with dinner. I usually don’t last longer than the dinner together with not a second of peace and quiet before I start looking forward to their bedtime…before I start wishing life away again.

I can sit down late at night and listen to those words from Trace Atkins and be overcome with compassion and appreciation:

You’re gonna miss this, you’re gonna want this back
You’re gonna wish these days hadn’t gone by so fast
These are some good times, so take a good look around
You may not know it now, but you’re gonna miss this

Sometimes my eyes even well up with tears of conviction as I listen to this song. But for the life of me, I can’t seem to summon its perspective when my son lies to me or when my daughter screams in public over not getting her way. Last month, I went on an international trip, my first since having children. I missed my children more than I could have imagined. In my mind, I heard their laughter and felt their hugs and couldn’t wait to get back. But then I was back. And just like clockwork, before long I was thinking, “When is bedtime?” I was ready for the front porch again.

We idealize a lot of things, only to be disappointed by the reality. Young couples do it with marriage. Families do it with vacations. Not even Jesus would let his would-be followers have any grandiose ideas about what it’s like to follow him. “Foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Older generations are especially guilty of idealizing childhood. I call it “grandparent amnesia.” They must have forgotten what it’s like to be a parent. They live on the front porch now. They’re perched there permanently. I know what they’re looking at. I’ve seen it too. But it’s a whole different ballgame on the inside. I appreciated something blogger Steve Wiens wrote: “There are people who say this to me: ‘You should enjoy every moment now! They grow up so fast!’ It’s not that it’s not true, it just really, really doesn’t help.”[2]

You see, I’m “working that space.” The space between knowing what a privilege parenting is and the draining work of actually doing it. I’m trying to live inside the house while remembering that view from the outside. I’m trying to remember that the holy place is not the feel-good perspective of the front porch. It’s in the thick of things where I have to be a part of the reality—wiping noses and rear-ends, solving sibling conflicts, and reading that book for umpteenth time. This is what “incarnation” is all about. Just as God took on flesh, we are called to take on our messy reality—the “beautiful mess” as Rick McKinley would call it.

So I plow ahead. I will continue to “work that space,” because I’m not much use on the front porch looking in.


[1] William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 22-23.


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