“…never again do I want to see / my own children running after me / teardrops on my collar and sleeves / ‘daddy don’t go… daddy don’t go…’ / let some other guy take my place / let some other fool sing these songs…” – Pierce Pettis. Some days I feel this song…
I posted this as my facebook status recently. After 14 days on the road followed by four brief days at home, I was in a hotel room in Minneapolis preparing to leave again for another 12 days, and feeling the familiar ache of having to say goodbye to those I love most.
My family was with me and we had driven through the night from a concert in Northern Minnesota in order for me to get a few hours of sleep before catching my early morning flight to Orlando, FL. The alarm rang at 5:45 AM after three hours of sleep, and then something remarkable happened.
The alarm went off, quietly, and Taya whispered, “Jayce, you gotta get up. . .I’m turning off the alarm.”
“Yup,” I croaked, and then lied: “I’m awake.” And after a moment of silence, from somewhere in the dark came the fragile sleep soaked voice of my six-year-old little boy, Gus: “I’m sorry dad.”
“Oh, thanks buddy,” I said as I got my bearings and tried to shake off the urge to fall back into a deep sleep. “How come you’re sorry?” I asked. I assumed he was talking in his sleep. But I was wrong.
“I’m sorry you have to wake up when it’s still dark outside,” he said in tender earnest. And all of a sudden I was wide-awake with a lump in my throat.
Empathy!My little boy was feeling empathy for me! I didn’t expect it or ask for it, but there it was. And it was such a gift! It made me both proud of him and grateful to be. . . what? Understood?Acknowledged?Named in some sense?
“I don’t want you to go,” he said next, and his little voice cracked on the verge of tears.
“Oh buddy,” I said as I got up and crawled into bed next to him. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to go away from you either, I love you so much. . .” and then I tried my best to tell him why I had to go, navigating all the complexities of being a father and provider, trying to avoid the pitfalls of explaining my vocation and calling in terms of having to leave to make income for our family (I don’t want him to think it’s for money that I’m leaving) or spiritualizing it in terms of ministry (I don’t want him to think that God is taking me away from him). You do your best and hope that your children understand that your love for them sometimes even calls you away from them. At the very least, he understood the sacrifice of it, feeling sorry that I had to wake up when it was still dark.
I remembered a recent conversation I had with Andrew Peterson about the increasing difficulty of saying good-bye to our families, the ache of it, both of us wondering how much longer we could continue going on the road.
As I showered that morning in our hotel room, a Pierce Pettis lyric kept playing over and over in my head. It was from his song, “No More Sad Songs” – a lyric that I heard more than 16 years ago but still remembered because of it’s poignant transparency. It was a lyric that summed up my feelings in that moment of having to leave my children, and so I decided to post it as my facebook status.
It was an honest decision, but one I seriously questioned for a number of reasons – before and after I posted it. I’m no celebrity, but I do live – if somewhat modestly – in the public eye, which tempts me to edit and manage my public image: to be calculated, to accentuate the positive – at least in the way that I present myself to the public. And yet I often fear that this does a disservice to those who bless me with their attention. An unedited private moment from time to time could add complexity to my public self and hopefully lend credibility to the hope I profess, much like Pettis’ honest lyric about his pain over leaving his kids to go on the road enriched my experience of the rest of his songs.
I wondered if the temptation to let people see only the sunny side of my life might contribute to our culture’s constant distortion of reality, and I’ve wondered if an honest moment, in and of itself, from time to time might minister to people in some way, perhaps even encouraging them to acknowledge their own pain. I’ve maintained over the years that we are meant to be what Henri Nouwen called wounded healers, and yet I find in myself a reluctance to reveal my wounds. But it’s not for the obvious reasons, I don’t think. There are valid reasons for my concern that I wrestle with. I have no desire to conceal anything, but I also don’t want to bleed on anyone. Nor do I want to – forgive the obvious insensitivity of the saying – “cast my pearls before swine,” or in other words: share from the depths of my heart in a place where people might not take it into the depths of their own hearts.
I admit that it’s probably presumptuous to imagine that anyone cares all that much about my facebook status – each of us have enough burdens of our own to manage without concerning ourselves with the burdens of others. But at the very least, maybe it’s important for me – for my development as a human being – to resist the temptation to always edit my public self.
And I confess my fear that all of this talk about my little old status update may come off as self-important. And yet I hope that these honest reflections might be useful.
I admit, too, that facebook – a poor substitute for genuine community – may not be the place to bare one’s soul. Yet, as I weighed all of these things, I landed on the side of desiring to be honest in a way that hopefully adds depth, authenticity, and a note of credibility to my public self and the hope that I publicly profess.
Such self-consciousness! Does everybody feel this way when they update their status? Or is this just my narcissism running wild, dressed up as some kind of spiritual prudence? Maybe. . . it’s possible, probable even.
But whatever else it is – presumption, narcissism, or (insert your assessment here) – my status update felt a little risky to me for at least a couple reasons.
1) It carried with it the potential to invite the pity of others, which is the LAST thing I would want. I am blessed and grateful for the good life I’ve been given and I recoil at the idea of being pitied. Blech.
2) It also carried with it the potential to invite judgment. “Maybe it’s time you come off the road and care for your own family,” are the words I’ve heard numerous times before from well-meaning people who fail to understand the nuances of our God-given calling. Which got me thinking about tension and the ways we all avoid it.
We all tend to be uncomfortable with tension of any kind, and so when it inevitably presents itself – either in ourselves or in others – we’re tempted to be rid of it by throwing thoughtless quick-fix answers at it.Sometimes these answers are dressed up as pity, judgment, or anything else that releases us from wrestling with the requisite tension.
Of course the difficult truth is that there are many things that we simply must hold in tension and then – having done that – trust. I’m grateful for my work, even excited about hitting the road and experiencing the fulfillment of God’s vocational calling on my life. At the same time, all I want to do is stay home with my kids. And so it is that all of us hold these kinds of good and Godly yet opposing things in tension from time to time, and in the midst of it all we hope for genuine understanding and maybe even, by grace, some support.
Both pity and judgment are too easy and are therefore the enemies of genuine understanding, which, to some degree, requires that we enter into at least a portion of the struggle of those we would genuinely understand. But because that might be painful, and because we are allergic to pain, we flee to the less costly emotions of pity and judgment.
In an honest moment of transparency we are all asking to be known or understood in some way. And yet in my experience, it has often been met with judgment (though I’m still not asking for pity, I swear!). These experiences have caused Taya and I to seriously consider a move to Nashville for the simple reason of being able to be in community with other artist/ministers who understand the peculiar challenges that people of our vocation are required to hold in tension. To receive a knowing nod – not judgment, not pity – that makes you feel understood. . .this is the simple, potent gift of community!
And now my story takes another turn, because this is also the gift that I received from my little boy that morning.
“I’m sorry dad,” a child’s voice spoke in the dark. “I’m sorry you have to wake up when it’s still dark outside,” said Gus, not with pity, but with empathy. He willingly entered my experience and allowed himself to feel for me, to understand. It was so unexpected, and it blessed me and gave me strength.
“Thanks, Gus. I’ll see you in 12 days. You go back to sleep now, I love you. You’re a good boy,” I said to him. “You’re a good dad,” was his reply – the sweetest words a father could hope for, a parting benediction for my trip.
I swear I’m not trying to strong-arm a Sunday School application out of this, but as I reflected on all of these things, my thoughts turned finally to our Heavenly Father and the protestant tradition of speaking the gospel to each other daily, reminding each other of what we’ve been delivered from and what our deliverance cost our Savior.
I wondered if this tradition might be a kind of spiritual discipline where we practice empathy, remembering and understanding the sacrifice of Jesus. Does this bring our Father pleasure? Do we as God’s children bless Him the way Gus blessed me with an understanding acknowledgement of His saving work in our lives? What tension He chooses to hold for the love of us! He loves us whose hearts are “deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9) and who He yet causes to become “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21)!
“I’m sorry dad,” speaks the voice of a child.
“I’m sorry for the sacrifice you must make to provide for me. You are a good Father…”
I’m the beneficiary of God’s provision of grace – a provision that cost him dearly. I am daily in need of this grace with little to offer in return, but it occurred to me today that maybe I can at least offer my remembrance – a kind of empathy – for His sacrifice. May it bless my Father in something like the way I was blessed by my little boy who spoke into the dark of our hotel room, and loved me with his willingness to know and understand me.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".