Parenting is the most important job that anyone has who chooses or happens to reproduce. Unfortunately, no one knows how to do it to begin with, and by the time its figured out, the kids are grown up and gone – often leaving behind their parents who feel somewhat guilty that they didn’t do it perfectly.
Those of us who are privileged to be parents often keep a secret unwritten list of stuff ups we have made, and bring it out occasionally to make ourselves feel worse. It’s a good practice therefore to keep a box of goodies to counter that negativity – a box of all those little notes, interesting pieces of art, birthday cards, and slices of gratitude that our children have blessed us with.
There are lots of books and courses these days about parenting; to say nothing of the advice from family and friends and TV shows. Those of us who are parents want to do it as well as we can, but there are many restraints, including time, resources, stress, and the legacy of one’s own experiences of being parented.
I smile when some preacher or American politician tries to use the Bible to encourage for good parenting. The parenting reflected in biblical stories is predominantly not parenting to be encouraged or emulated. In Scripture there are examples of parents encouraging sibling rivalry, even hatred; parents abandoning children; parents manipulating children; and even parents threatening to kill children, or turn their children into killers. There are no stories of Jesus or any of his disciples parenting children. Apart from taking very general words like ‘love’ or ‘lovingkindness’ and then translating those into the matrix of modern parenting, the Bible is largely silent about healthy child-raising practices.
In church tradition we have something called a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace [a definition accredited to St Augustine of Hippo]. Or put more simply, a sacrament is seeing in what is ordinary the extraordinary of God.
Communion and baptism are the two sacraments connected to the historical Jesus. So, in the ceremony this morning of Henry’s baptism we have welcomed him into the community of those who seek to follow the Way of Jesus, and symbolized that with water. [That ‘community’ is not this St Luke’s community but rather the worldwide church, of which St Luke’s is one part]. Welcoming him with water and blessing is the ordinary. The extraordinary is that in this ritual we see something of the unconditional grace and love of God welcoming Henry, welcoming all of us, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done or might do.
In Celtic spirituality there weren’t just two sacraments or five or seven or nine. Rather all of life was sacramental – human life, animal life, and ecological life. This spiritual understanding is one about connection, about oneness, about the harmony of all things, about seeing and touching God through all and in all. The everyday things, the everyday creatures, become symbolic of the presence and grace of God. The Celtic prayers are poetic and meditative. Form is as important as content, the way things are done as important as what is done.
When the Bible says we are ‘made in the image of God’[i], Celtic spirituality understood it as saying that the mysterious loving divine presence of the universe is here in and among us. And here among us not just in adults, but in children and teenagers. Old and young are in God’s image. Those who are beautiful and those who are scarred are in God’s image. Those who are different – in temperament, gender, or orientation – are in God’s image, as are those who fit normative categories. In the ordinary of one another, we can experience the extraordinary of God.
Similarly our homes are sacramental. One doesn’t need to come to a church, or a lovely beach, or an inspiring mountain to experience the extraordinary of God. That which is sacred is as near as our very breathing, and is found in our closest relationships, with those who make our home a home. As Paul might have said, our bodies and our relationships are ‘temples’ [sanctuaries] of God’s spirit, as are our homes.
Robin Myers[ii] talks about the home being a temple with Big gods (mothers and fathers) and Little gods (children), and where life’s liturgy is played out. When the Big gods are happy, all is well with the Little gods. But when there is trouble above, there’s trouble below.
When parents exhibit affection, consideration, and kindness to each other, the children will often treat each other likewise. And, says Myers, when the parents don’t, the children often don’t.
Children watch their parents every move, they soak up whatever bliss or vinegar is available in the house. Horace Bushnell, known for his gentle theories of Christian education, put it something like this: ‘The fragrance of the house is always in the garments of the children’.
This is not to say that children expect some sort of ethereal bliss to rule the home temple. It’s not perfection that is important, but commitment, first between the Big gods themselves, and then to the idea that the Little gods are worthy, inherently worthy. And for parents to give time is the best way to communicate inherent worthiness.
Myers says that the Little gods are never quite sure whether the Big gods wouldn’t prefer to be absolved of their responsibilities, enjoying their dominion alone. The Little gods can easily think they are a disappointment or a nuisance. That’s why when a Big god sits down to read to a Little god, or braid their hair, or bake with them, or build lego, heaven itself opens to reveal that the nature of love is bound up with the inverse use of power. ‘Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength’.[iii]
Parenting is a high and holy art. In the sacramental site called the home children can learn to navigate time and responsibilities, to cherish tenderness, to temper judgement and control anger, to remember and celebrate birthdays, to defend the weak and bear the cost of that, to notice beauty and provide the space for more, to endure inequity and wrongs done to oneself, to preserve humility in success and integrity in failure, to be generous, to be faithful… all by watching the liturgy that is their parents’ or caregivers’ lives.
Children of course need to have limits set and secretly thrive on a non-violent kind of discipline. They need ways to contribute to the chores of the household, and encouragement in doing that. They need compromise on little things and strong resolve on big things. They need times when the Big gods come to visit their world and play in it without making the Little gods feel foolish or inadequate. They need more praise and less ridicule, more patience and less resentment, more love and more listening.
Ours is not yet a world fit for children. To make it so, we have to reconstruct the meaning of a ‘good life’. We need to move away from a world fixated on owning things, doing things, and achieving things – and all the pressures and feelings that these fixations can bring. Instead we need to redefine the ‘good life’ in terms of inherent worthiness, affection, consideration, kindness, and time to laugh, listen and play with children. For children life is good when there is more light in the house than darkness. When their parents are happy, children are usually happy; when parents and children are happy the children are quietly learning the recipe and ingredients of ongoing happiness.
There’s a story told of minister who, when on her way to the library, stopped and talked to a parishioner and her 5 year old daughter, Sarah. The little girl had a new skipping rope, and the minister – being an old hand with skipping ropes – began to demonstrate to Sarah some of the skills required.
After a while Sarah began to jump, first once, then twice. The mother and the minister clapped loudly in appreciation of her efforts. Eventually the little girl was able to jump quite well on her own and wandered off with her new-found skill.
The mother and minister chatted a few minutes more until Sarah returned with the saddest, wisest eyes imaginable, dragging her skipping rope. “Mummy,” she said, “I can do it but I need lots of clapping.”[iv]
The Christian life, the life of following the Way of Jesus, is not something one does on one’s own. Like to grow up we need a family, so to grow up Christian we need a community. And the paramount function of a community is ‘to clap’ – to encourage one another as we try new things, struggle with old things, and venture into the unknown. The language of encouragement is the language of Christian community.
This morning we offer that encouragement to Henry and his family.
[i] Genesis 1:27.
[ii] Meyers, R. Morning Sun on a White Piano, p. 37 ff.
[iii] Saint Francis de Sales
[iv] L. Patrick Carroll and Katherine M. Dyckman “Lend Each Other A Hand”.