“Cornelia kept her in talk till her children came from school, ‘and these,’ said she, ‘are my jewels.’”
Robert Burton (1577–1640)
The Talmud, an ancient collection of rabbinic writings, says there are three things a man ought to do before he dies: plant a tree, write a book and have a son. In other words, we ought to leave something behind that prolongs our usefulness.
I’ve done all three with varying degrees of success. I’ve planted a number of trees, some of which have flourished while others have perished of drought, pestilence, or neglect. Despite the lofty Latin names we give them — semper vivere, for example — no tree lives forever.
I’ve written a few books and some of them remain, though it’s not likely that any of them will long endure. Like Carl Barth, I imagine myself entering heaven with a pushcart full of my stuff and hearing the angels laugh at me. “I shall be dump them,” as he suggests, “on some heavenly floor as a pile of waste paper.”
But, if you’ll allow me one conceit, I’m inordinately proud of our three sons. They are my most significant legacy.
There is a universal preoccupation among us to build something enduring. No one wants to drift through life and leave nothing noteworthy behind. That’s why we work so hard at our work and spend so much time and energy on our widgets. We spend ourselves building a house or a city, rising up early and going late to rest, “eating the bread of anxious toil,” (Ps. 127:1,2), busying ourselves beyond all common sense and human endurance to make our mark on this world, all the while overlooking the one investment that matters beyond imagination — our children.
A friend of mine, Bill Younger, wrote recently with this thought: “If we died tomorrow, the company that we are working for could easily replace us in a matter of days. But the family we left behind will feel the loss for the rest of their lives. Why then do we invest so much in our work and so little in our children’s lives?” Good question, I say.
“Behold!” Solomon declares, as though stabbed awake by the insight, “Children are a heritage from the Lord” — an invaluable legacy he has bequeathed us. They are “wages from the womb” — a priceless pay-off. Nothing is more worthy of our energy and time. “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth,” is Solomon’s striking simile. Our children are our most powerful and far-ranging asset. “Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.” (Psalm 127:3-5).
Yet, for so many young men and women there is “not enough father,” as Robert Blye used to say. Young people have fathers, to be sure, but they’re mostly absent or distant for they’re much too busy making a living.
Nobody understands this better than Fredrick Buechner who weaves the tale of Godric, a Twelfth Century holy man, around this theme. Old Godric looks back to his childhood and struggles to recall the face of his father, Aedlward.:
Aedlward’s face I’ve long since lost, but his back I can still behold. He held his head cocked sideways, and his ears stood out like handles on a pot as he strode forth from the smoke of our hut to work our own scant croft of leeks, parsley, shallots, and the like, or else my lord’s wide acres. Endless was the work there was, the seeding, the spreading of dung, reaping and threshing, cutting and storing. In winter there were scythes and plows to mend, the beasts to keep, roofs to patch until your fingers froze. It seems that he was ever striding off in every way but ours so I scarcely had the time to mark the smile or scowl of him. Even the look of his eyes is gone. They were grey as the sea like mine, it’s said, only full of kindness, but what matter how kind a man’s eye be if he never fixes you with it long enough to learn?
He had a way of whistling through his teeth like wind through wattle, and it’s like wind that I remember him. His was a power to thump doon, open and shut like wind, a grey gust of a man to make flames fly and scatter chaff. But wind has no power to comfort a child or lend a strong arm to a lad whose bones are weak with growing. If Aedlward and Godric meet in Paradise, they’ll meet as strangers do and never know.
It was fear kept Aedlward from us, and next to God what he feared of all things most was an empty belly…. It was his fear we’d starve that made him starve us for that one of all things that we hungered for the most, which was the man himself (Godric. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980, p.9)
But, you ask, “How can I give my children what they hunger for when I must keep the wolf from my door?” Israel’s poet answers: there is no need for “anxious toil, for (God) gives to his loved ones while they sleep” (Ps. 127:2).
There’s something very significant about this psalm, something easily missed unless we understand that the Sabbath for Israel began not on Saturday morning but on Friday evening at bedtime. The Hebrew evening and morning sequence says something very important: God puts his children to sleep so he can get their work done. “Sleep is God’s contrivance for giving us the help he cannot get into us when we are awake,” said George MacDonald.
Fatigue overtakes us in the evening and we have to stop working. We lay ourselves down to sleep and drift off into blessed oblivion for the next 6-8 hours, a state in which we are totally non–productive. But nothing essential stops. Though we may leave many things undone and most projects unfinished God is still on the job. “He gives to those he loves while they sleep.” The next morning his eyes sweep over us and he awakens us to enjoy the benefits of all that he has done and to join in a work in progress.
In other words God is at work when we are not. (Truth be known, he is at work when we are.) We can make time for our children and leave our work to him. They are our legacy, an investment we will never regret.
David and Carolyn Roper co-direct the work of Idaho Mountain Ministries, a ministry of clergy care. David is the author of 14 books. The most recent: Teach Us To Number Our Days. His musings are archived on davidroper.blogspot.com/
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.