The boys didn't want to go because they had already had three hours of church that day. Kevin wanted them to go because he wanted them to go. I didn't really care whether they went or not. I was just there in the cafeteria eating an awful meal with them that I thought for sure was the dregs that got pulled out because the chef underestimated the sheer amount of food 200 aging ex- and wannabe-jocks and their male offspring could pound away on a Sunday evening. (On checking the menu online for curiosity's sake, I discovered, to my horror, that they really had planned to serve Wonderbread rolls, shiny roast beef and chemically-derived brightly yellow anbd viscous cheese product at that particular station.)
Like a parody of sage Deborah, I inserted myself into the words going back and forth between Christian and Kevin: Why? Because? Why? Because? Why? Because? I made things worse: "So, let's hear you articulate why you think the boys should go? Kevin looked at me in dismay, sort of like, "Are you kidding me? Are you even going to make me go there?" And I smiled wisely: "Yes . . . Because 'because I said so' isn't a very good reason."
So, he tried, "Because we signed up for this camp. Because this is what we do as a culture. We go to firesides."
"But why?" This time coming from me.
Christian: "But I already went to church . . . with a smile" (one of our particular requests of a child who can darken any classroom he cares to if he decides to pout). "I already hung out with these people for 2 whole days, and I have to hang with them tomorrow. I just don't want to go." The two younger boys, who were jumping through the rock garden outside the cafeteria with their cousins, didn't really have an opinion. They were just copying Christian's attitude and would do whatever he decided.
Kevin added, "Because we seek further light and knowledge. Because I want to go and I want our boys to go with me." Tessa aka Deborah decided, "Okay. Those are good reasons."
After some rather tense moments, parental authority decided that the 3 boys would be attending the devotional, in their church clothes, which were probably lying on the floor in their bedrooms at home. They went home to change while Kevin and I walked to the ballroom where the devotional would take place. On the way, Kevin told me bluntly that part of the reason we don't have children who take piano lessons, or voice lessons, is because I let them have a say in everything. Everything is open for discussion. "If I had said I wanted Christian to go, he would have just gone. No discussion. Not everything has to be open for discussion."
"Well, I didn't think they HAD to go."
" But if I said they needed to go, they would go. No debate."
"But I think the debate is good. I think Christian should choose to go because he wants to honor you. He doesn't have to want to go. You can't force his attitude. You can't force him to want something."
"But that's the problem with our kids. . . they just do what they want to do and not what they don't want to do. That's why they don't play the piano or any kind of musical instrument. We let them out of hard things."
"But they're going to the fireside. They are going, and they're doing it because you asked them to, not because they have to." I hadn't wanted to share this with Kevin, but I didn't want to go either. I had thought I was going to join them for dinner and then go home to a quiet, twilight house. The thought of attending the fireside never crossed my mind, until I was in the cafeteria and realized that Kevin was assuming I would go. (I thought it better not to raise that point in front of Christian.) "You know, " I said in a tentative voice, "I don't want to go to this fireside. It's not how I would choose to spend a Sunday evening. But I want to spend time with you so I'm going to the fireside."
"Well, go home then. You don't have to be here."
"I know I don't have to be here. But I'm choosing to be here because I want to spend time with you. I don't care about Chad Lewis or what he has to say."
'Well, go home then. You don't have to be here."
"I know I don't have to be here. I'm choosing to spend time with you, which, means I attend this fireside. So, I'm here. Christian can choose that too--to spend time with you. He doesn't have to want to go. He can just want to make you happy. That's a good enough reason to go."
We ended up at the meeting. Kevin and I sitting together, for the first time that weekend. The three boys came back, dressed in church clothes, and sat behind us with their 6 or 7 male cousins. We all listened to Chad Lewis, who was personable, told a good story, talked to the boys at their level (which isn't my level at all). At the end Christian said, "Thanks Dad, that was great" and I got to have Adam sit on my lap halfway through and to smell that warm sweaty curve behind his ear. Kevin got to have all his boys with him, while he sat with his brothers and listened to Chad Lewis. So, all's well that ends well.
As I've thought about this exchange we've had, I've thought about a question Kevin asked me that revealed, as we talked and walked, a philosophical divide I wasn't completely aware of between the two of us. It revolved around the concept of "have to." I don't believe "have to" is a reason to do anything, even a fireside. So, I was explaining to Kevin that I didn't think that just because you belonged to a community, you had to act in a certain way: "There is no have to, Kev. That doesn't work for me."
"You mean, there is nothing that we have to do in life?"
I thought for a moment. Silence. Thoughts ran through my head: baptism, marriage, temple, obedience, white shirts, nylons, flip flops, food storage, fidelity, tithing. He repeated the question into the silence. "I'm thinking . . . . Yes. There is nothing that we have to do in this life."
"You're wrong. At the very least, we have to get baptized."
"No, you don't. You only have to get baptized if you desire a certain end result. I don't think there any any actions in this life that are mandated."
"Nothing. It just depends on what you want and where you want to end up."
"I think you're wrong."
"I might be . . . but that works for me. That thought process allows me to feel as if I am choosing my end result. Feeling like I am choosing is important to me. It allows me to feel like my life is mine, that I have chosen it."
I've never been a joiner--which is strange because I've always looked at groups and wondered how people got to be a part of them, and wanted to be a part of them, almost. I look at the women who lead our the women in our church and commiserate to myself that I will never be one of those women because I'm not "pink." Not soft, not twinset, not flowers on the left breast, not carefully styled and modulated. But do I really want to be? Part of me wants to be accepted by this culture and counted as one of them.
On the other side, there is a part of me that doesn't like a wall, doesn't like a given, a set or a series of musts. Rules don't make me feel secure. I feel hemmed in. So, to hear my husband say that my children "have to" attend something that to me seems marginally profitable makes me narrow my eyes and cock my head, an old crow about to fly down off her telephone wire to interfere in a fresh mound of roadkill.
I don't know what it is about me that bridles at the language of "have to, "must," or "only way," for example. I'd like to think that it's my fierce commitment to the principle that God will force no man or woman or child or horse to heaven. But, at the same time as I commend myself to that principle, I can hear Neal Maxwell's rasping whine describing some who are "so afraid of being taken in that they remain forever without." It's been at least 25 years since I heard that phrase and I have never forgotten it, perhaps because it sings up against an aching tooth in my soul.
I suppose there are others for whom the challenge is to comfortably stand apart. They are made differently than I am. Their way is a no less valid way, and their refining process is perhaps the other side of the pendulum from which I swing. To get around this thing that is hardwired into me, I've come to think about situations in ways that allows me to feel like I'm freely participating: I choose this fireside because I would like to sit next to my husband for an hour and do nothing but feel the air-conditioning and his leg pressing against me. I will provide white shirts and ties for my two older sons because one of them doesn't want to stick out and one will wear it because he's been asked to.
I also try to parent the same way, trying to explain things so that my children are able to consent at some level. I know there are risks to this way, as there are with all ways. My children might think everything is negotiable. They will have a hard time with people who don't talk to them like they can think. They won't understand the wielding of authority like a club. But, I hope we are providing for them a way to participate in their world, to act and not to be acted upon.
Is it acceptable for Christian to attend church because he has to? Not really--for me. But can he choose to attend because his parents want him to and because he is trying to be the kind of person who honors his parents. Yes. Honoring the wishes of your elders is a good reason, in any culture, to participate in an activity. Can he choose to attend because his mother has promised him that if he listens with an attentive heart, he will hear something in the space of that quiet hour? Yes. Does it matter that he goes to honor his parents or because of his morbid curiousity to hear a voice than because he really wants to? No--not to me. Because, just as happened last Sunday evening, I have learned that when we are in the right place (either by choice or by commandment), our presence and participation is counted unto us, blessed by providence if you will.
After all, what more could a woman ask for than the still-willing weight of her ten-year-old son on her lap and the smell of his hot hair in her nose, the press of her husband's thigh against hers, the prospect of Rocky Road ice-cream in a while, and the "Thanks Dad" coming from previously recalcitrant lips. An hour is a small entry fee for such things.
Title: from "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," by Robert Robinson.