He found his junior-high flame on Facebook. Growing claustrophobic with life as a father and husband and wanting the freedom of more space, he decided to walk away. Just like that. Familial responsibilities were simply too much, too confining. Too restrictive. Better to put to death their life together than his own.
It will be years before his three little girls recover from his betrayal—if they ever do.
I see what is happening to these three little girls and their mama—all the destruction his actions and absenteeism have unleashed in their lives—and with teeth clenched in fierce resolve I promise myself, “I’ll never do that. I swear to God I’ll never walk out on Shawn and the girls. I won’t betray them.” My resolve is firm because I deeply love and enjoy my husband and my daughters but also because I am well aware of the adulterous specter that haunts my ancestral lineage. Indeed, I am acutely aware that the life I live is intimately connected to the flourishing or the destruction of my own family and the generations who follow. How I live matters. As Gandalf says in TheLord of the Rings, “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields we know, so that those who live after us may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”
And so before I put too much distance between this man and me, before I get on my self-righteous high-horse, I remind myself that I too have felt claustrophobic—suffocated by the sometimes tyranny of the mundane. I also remind myself that I’ve discovered the mundane aspects of my life are a normal part of a healthy family’s life. Even so, there are moments when I find myself pining for something more exciting. Not an escape into another man’s arms (God forbid!) but the excitement of doing what I want, unencumbered by familial responsibilities.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Many of us, alongside our brothers and sisters throughout the world, will embark on a 40-day journey of fasting, self-examination, and repentance in preparation for the Easter celebration. Some of us will attend an Ash Wednesday service where we will confess our sins, perhaps take communion, and receive the imposition of Ashes on our foreheads and hear the words “Remember, you are dust, and unto dust youshall return.”
This year, as I observe Lent, my hope is that I’ll be even more lovingly present to my family in the mundane, that those moments of pining away for something more exciting will become fewer and farther between. You see, my temptation is to believe that what I call the minutiae of life doesn’t count. Instead, what counts is whatever animates me or whatever I deem spectacular. Making disciples, talking theology, teaching and equipping leaders for ministry, writing, speaking, and influencing culture—being in the thick of these things—animates me. Folding and putting away laundry, playing Candy Land more than a few times, reading Brown Bear or some other book too many times to count, doing and putting away the dishes, and cleaning and picking up around the house doesn’t animate me or make my life count. At least that’s what I tell myself. And so like Jesus, I am tempted to throw myself off of the temple, to do something spectacular, to prove that my life counts, to make my mark in the world (Matt. 4).
In such moments I suffer from what the ancients called the demon of acedia – that raging desire to escape from the mundane present, that restlessness we can’t seem to shake that tells us that anywhere is better than where we are, and that the grass is indeed greener elsewhere. I believe acedia drives people to do things that they wouldn’t do when in their right minds—for example, choose to be absent from those closest to them. Ultimately acedia is lack of love for God, others, and self.
The seepage of acedia into my life is why I need to practice regularly the spiritual disciplines of community, silence and solitude, prayer, pilgrimage, absorption of Scripture, celebration, confession, abiding, and fasting during Lent and throughout the year. It’s why I have to say ‘no’ more than I normally would to some of the opportunities that come my way. These spiritual practices are conduits of grace that God often uses to return me to myself and to my senses—otherwise I could easily walk away from my family to do ministry. It’s easier to be holy in the company of strangers and infrequent acquaintances. So through these practices, the Holy Spirit reminds me of the benefits of the boundaries of my family life, the benefits of limiting myself, and of the benefit of what I sometimes see as confinement.
I’ve heard a story about a monk who sought advice from the Desert Father, Abba Moses. Abba Moses replied, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” My family life functions as my monastic cell. It is one of the primary places where I learn the rhythms of grace, where I learn to give and receive grace. Here, I practice cultivating the joy, peace, patience and kindness, the goodness and faith, the gentleness and self-control that make up the type of love we read about in 1 Corinthians 13.
How I behave in obscurity tells a lot about my character, and just like Jesus’s character, my character is formed in the obscurity of my family life. Indeed, my cell (we all have different ones) teaches me that I simply cannot find true freedom and life at my family’s expense. Beginning today and all throughout Lent, I’ll focus on living out this truth. Dishes and diapers and daughters will be my guide.