On Raising Savages: The Lion and the Bear
By Kris Green
“I don’t want to go to church,” my son, Tenny, says from the backseat of the car.
I look into the rearview mirror. He’s looking out the window and pointing out a truck driving by. I don’t comment on what he says about not wanting to go to church. I hope my lack of response works, as he’s already distracted by another cement truck.
“Daddy,” Tenny tries again. Addressing me correctly is a smart move. I feel like I’m the more flexible parent, so he might think that means he can try to get what he wants. “I don’t want to go to church.”
It’s direct and to the point. Another smart move. We strive to not respond to crying and whining when it comes to the kids. Although I feel as if we’re more successful with my son, who is three and a half, than my daughter, who merely whines and commands the attention of the room. Being only one, she’s already learned to control the room. She points and any fool of an adult, myself included, beacons. Maybe that’s why I call her, “The Thunder Maker.”
When that doesn’t work, he says he has to go poo. Another smart move. Time-out is only interrupted when he has to go to the bathroom, but even then, it’s short lived. We’re in and out of an Aldi in five minutes. He doesn’t know we leave early because of these pit stops. Ever since he’s been potty trained, we’ve found we need to leave early. The thirty-minute ride to church has at least one unscheduled stop.
The truth is, I don’t want to go to church either. I get it. I hold his hand as we walk through the Aldi parking lot. He climbs into his seat and helps me get the straps on. He smiles at me because he’s a good and sweet kid.
I have a headache. I’m tired. I’m on the tail end of a vacation and frankly, going anywhere seems like a mistake. I’d much rather stay in bed and not do anything than get up, get dressed, go to church, sit in the nice cool room where sleep seems like it could come easily, and then drive back. Maybe we’d do lunch or something, I don’t know. Either way, the morning is gone. Luckily, half the decisions we make as adults are not because of want-to but because we know what’s good for us, like eating a salad rather than a donut.
I don’t tell him this. The truth is, there’s a lot you shouldn’t tell a three-year-old. It’s not that he won’t understand, and it’s not to make my life any easier. He’ll find questions to ask whether I help him or not. The truth is, he’s immature. He doesn’t know how to be wise. He doesn’t know the rewards of patience or the virtues of saving up for something you want. He doesn’t know a hard day’s labor and frankly, what he wants, he does not deserve to get.
As a father, I take joy in giving him things. My wife grimaces every time I bring a sweet treat home because we need to watch the sugar levels in the house, my own included. She’s right. But in that joy, it is difficult to find that line where he gets something special, and he thinks it’s a right to have that something special.
“Daddy,” he tries again. I’m proud in a way that maybe I shouldn’t be because he’s so persistent. “I don’t want to go to church.”
The time for delay has passed. I have to address it.
“Tenny, you have a choice right now. We’re going to church whether you like it or not. You can choose to be upset and cry and whine and maybe get in trouble, or you can accept it. I know that once you get into church, you’ll have fun. I know you’ll learn something, and even have a snack or draw a picture. But you can choose whether you’re going to enjoy it or not. We’re going to church whether you like it or not. The choice you have is what kind of attitude you’ll have going to church.”
He’s quiet. I look in the rearview mirror. I can see him considering.
We get to church, and he says he has to go to the bathroom again. We go in and he stands on my feet so that he can pee in the urinal. We walk over to the sink, and I put him on the counter to wash our hands and after, he puts his arms around me. He holds me. I said that he has a choice, but in a lot of ways it doesn’t make it any easier for him.
“Remember what I said about the lion?” I whisper.
Creed 2 has become one of my favorite movies. There’s a scene toward the end where Creed is boxing the son of the man who killed his father. The stakes are personal. Creed is giving it his all, but his opponent is meeting every blow for blow. Then the other boxer hits hard into Creed’s sides just before the end of the round.
“Your ribs are broken,” Sylvester Stallone says as Rocky Balboa to Creed. “He’s going to keep going for them.”
This is where Michael B. Jordon shows how phenomenal of an actor he is. There are other scenes that hit in the movie, but for me, it’s this. There’s fear in his eyes as he looks down to his side and back up to Rocky. Fear is going to keep him from winning.
Stallone sees this. “That okay, you like the pain.”
Creed’s eyes move from lost, fearful, and hopeless to Rocky, who’s become a father figure to him.
“You like the pain, because you’re dangerous.”
Creed’s eyes change with a barely noticeable nod, “I’m dangerous.”
When my daughter was born, they took her after my wife had held her and began to clean her. I followed my daughter and watched as the nurse tried to clean her. My daughter cried and waved her tiny arms at the nurse.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she was trying to fight me,” the nurse said to me.
I stared at my daughter. I knew better. She was. From that day on, I began to call her, “The Thunder Maker.”
In her room, I wrote a line from a poem by Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet, on her dry erase board. You will hear thunder and remember me, and think: she wanted storms.
“Remember what I said about the lion?” I whisper to Tenny.
I can see the fire in his eyes as he nods.
“In your heart is a lion. You need to learn how to control that lion so that the lion doesn’t control you.”
He’s heard it maybe too many times already, in our post time-out sessions where we talk about why he got in trouble. We talk about how he’s strong inside. We talk about how he needs to be better. He needs to learn to control that lion.
In my children, I see these reservoirs of strength waiting to come out. I see them because I know them in myself. I see the potential for greatness because I see my own failings and my own struggles at greatness. I see opportunities that they might be able to rise above and succeed in ways I could never. I urge them not to fulfill some lost dream of mine, but rather I urge them toward greatness. Maybe the church would use the word holiness. Maybe not.
When my son decides to unleash the lion, if he can harness its strength, then he will be a force to reckon with. But as a father, I know it’s my duty to point and guide and help him see things inside of himself that he doesn’t know are there.
Just recently, I began to call my daughter’s inner spirit a bear. Crouching down, she looks so tiny, but when she rises, it’s as fierce as a grizzly. Try not to think of that scene in the Revenant, but may the Lord help any fool who crosses her. I see it. I see it every day. You heard it here first, folks.
My son still cries when we drop him off at his Sunday School class. That’s okay, I tell myself. He doesn’t know that his tears hurt me more than they hurt him.
The sermon hits. The pastor preaches that we live out our labels. He talks about Jacob being a deceiver. Even his name means deceiver. I consider his parents naming him that and wonder at what kind of household he grew up in.
“We live out our labels,” our pastor says.
And it’s not until Jacob wrestles with God that he gets a new name. In that new name, he finds a new identity. God has a way of calling people by what he sees in them. God changes their name and in doing so, in more ways than one, God changes their identity. “You will no longer be known as Jacob. Your new name will be Israel because you have wrestled with God and with people and have overcome.”
It’s hard being a dad. I wish I could write that I get things right more than wrong. I wish I spent more time with my kids. Sometimes, I just want to sleep and that voice from my little boy pleads, “Play with me, Daddy.” And there are times where I must sleep, or I can’t engage anymore because I am wiped from the day.
I tell my son I see the lion inside him because I do. Maybe that’s why God changed Jacob’s name. Jacob wrestled with God. It wasn’t for God’s benefit. God was showing Jacob something that was going on inside Jacob’s heart that he didn’t know about. God was showing Jacob his own reservoirs of strength.
I’ve hesitated writing male pronouns to describe God when writing this section. Knowing that genders and labels like this might not just offend but also might detract from these thoughts.
But Christ called God our Father. There’s something true about it. A friend of mine, when asked to describe God, would ask that person about their relationship with their father because he had found that link so closely shapes one’s view of God that he was unable to talk about God without using it as a steppingstone.
A father isn’t for the weak at heart. Maybe that’s why it’s become a cliché about father’s abandoning their families. A father needs to be wise and give their all into guiding their children toward adulthood. Parents need to balance love and discipline. It’s a trial. A father looks into their child’s heart and tells them who they are.
My parents never spoke to me about controlling what was lurking inside of my own heart. The struggles that came with evil desires of youth and the arrogance that ultimately everyone carries inside and must face.
“What about Grampy?” my son asks one day.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I tell him before making a joke that maybe his grandpa has a baboon in his heart.
“You don’t know?” he asks.
I don’t tell him this, but it’s a fatherly job to label the animal inside their child’s heart. It’s the father’s job to guide his child into facing those challenges to becoming holy.
I lost my father when I was a young boy. Many of us don’t have that guidance. Maybe it’s fair to say most of us don’t. The scripture reaffirms again and again that God is our father. Didn’t Christ tell us to pray like this: “Our Father”?
“It is what it is,” was a common sentiment in my house growing up. I hate that saying. Someone posted on social media that this phrase was a sign of resilience, but for me, it’s a sign of resignation. If we become complacent to the evil lurking in our own lives, then we lose to it. We fail the ultimate test that is laid out before us.
One of the great evils in the world is that we’re fighting against each other. Race, sex, political affiliation, gender, wealth are not things that we should spend time fighting against people over. If we see the enemy as ourselves rather than someone who disagrees with us, then we lay the foundation of having true peace. That peace begins by confronting our own demons, our own savagery, our own grace, and even our own lions and bears.
To say, “things are what they are,” is to say there’s nothing I can do to change my situation. That’s a lie. The enemy is you. Just as my enemy is me. Like I told my son, we’re going to church. You have a choice of attitude, not of what is going to happen.
A godly friend of mine, whenever he faces the slightest inconvenience, shouts out that it’s Satan. But really, it’s not. Not all the time. The evil is him. The evil is the anger rising inside that he needs to face down.
“We live out our labels,” our pastor says.
The sermon talked about how things that are spoken over us often become self-fulfilling prophecies. From Jacob’s family calling him a deceiver from birth to Stallone calling Creed dangerous in the climax of Creed 2.
Telling my children about the animal that lives inside of them is not to give them permission to act out, but to be create a very real call to arms. It’s not just casting a vision for who they are but calling them to wrestle with what is going on in their lives. I’m giving them permission to not be a victim of circumstance but to summon the strength to walk with that power.
Marianne Williamson said in her book, A Return to Love, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest dear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” The full passage is quite beautiful. I’m not sure how I feel about it sometimes. But I see it in my son as he figures out his own strength and power. My daughter has no reservation as she and her brother move with little awareness of consequence. They rampage around the house discovering their strengths while simultaneously tearing it apart at the same time.
In church, I see a father in front of me. The way he holds his baby boy, instinctively, I know it’s his firstborn. The baby lays his head on the father’s shoulder as the worship leader in front of the church sings, “Great are you, Lord.”
There’s something magical about the moment. Something that makes me hold on to it. That and the laughing joy my son has when we pick him up from his church time and see he’s not only had fun but drawn us a new masterpiece.
Thunder rumbles so loudly it shakes our house. My son comes out of his room with tears welling in his eyes. He knows he’s supposed to stay in his room, nap or not, until four. The thunder scares him.
I hold him close for a few minutes. I calm him down. The storm is already passing. He told me he’s scared but even in my arms, I know he’s better.
“What’s your lion doing?” I ask.
He shakes his head back and forth.
“He should be helping you be brave right now.”
He looks at me. The lion inside of him isn’t evil. It’s the potential for greatness inside. It’s all that potential energy screaming inside to be made kinetic. His greatest enemy is going to be himself and the faster he sees that, the stronger he’ll be at facing those challenges. If he can take that lion that wants to be fear or wants to be selfish and use it to make his heart be brave and loving, he will be unstoppable.
“How many times do I have to say the same thing?” I raise my voice a few days later to my son as my daughter bursts into tears from a new injury.
He just looks at me. I imagine his lion growling as he looks at me before stepping back, seeing the lion inside of me. He sits on the stairs in time-out. He cries. He knows when he’s done crying, we’re going to talk. He knows my lion will start to talk to his lion. It’ll be the same conversation we’ve had a hundred times.
How many times do I have to say the same thing? As many times as it takes.
He calms. I calm.
“Remember what I said about the lion?”