It’s a beautiful sight to see a baby or a small child absolutely glow with delight when mommy or daddy return after a time of separation, even if it’s been no longer than it takes to walk to the laundry room and transfer a load of clothes from the washer to the dryer. It is not a pretty sight, in contrast, to see a child of any age showing disrespect to a parent who deserves respect.
Talking about parents in general is a tough job since there are so many different kinds of parents--many of whom are great parents and plenty who are bad news any way you slice it. Some parents make a child’s life; other parents take the lives of their children. Some parents are the major sources of support of their children and contribute immeasurably to their children’s successes; other parents have children who must succeed in spite of their parents.
One of the Ten Commandments, the foundation of ancient Israel’s moral and spiritual codes, says that children, in healthy cultures, honor their parents. The Ten Commandments were not for kiddies, but rather for adults. Honoring mother and father in the context of the Ten Commandments was not a call for young children and teens to obey their parents; that teaching is in scripture, but the Ten Commandments calls on adult children to honor parents, which meant respecting them and caring for them when they need care.
That commandment in its fullness reads: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12 NRSV). Not all ten of the commandments have a “tag” or an explanation attached to them, but this is one that does. There’s a rationale given for honoring parents, and it’s a powerful rationale. You honor parents, at least in part, to keep the your culture alive; said another way, when the generations lose respect for each other, a whole community, a whole way of life, dies out. That is something worth remembering in our country today where there is woeful lack of respect among the generations for other generations, younger people often showing no respect for older people and older people, just as frequently, refusing to honor younger people.
Another characteristic about the Ten Commandments worth remembering is that they are more designed for collective adherence than for individual adherence. Obviously, individuals have to live by the guidelines in order for them to be kept, but they were developed as a word to and for a whole people. So, for example, it’s not simply an individual who is supposed to refrain from killing another human being, but whole communities or countries that are supposed to live by the standard; and I presume the logic is that if the group sets the standard, then individuals within the group are more likely to live by the standard. Similarly, if a whole culture lives in such a way that parents are honored, it’s much more likely that individual children will live accordingly. Conversely, if the culture treats the elderly with disdain, the young people growing up in that culture will simply follow suit.
Let’s give organized religion a word of praise here. They were taking the lead in elder care long before it became a highly profitable undertaking in an aging culture making the enterprise increasingly attractive to secular corporations who are often more interested in profit than in compassion; although we all know of examples of extraordinary compassion shown in a secular care facility and some examples where compassion for the elderly has not been shown in a religiously affiliated institution. As usual, generalizing leads to distortion.
The great American preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, said: “We never know the love of the parent till we become parents ourselves.” That is profoundly and painfully true. If we could fix that, most major conflicts between parents and children of all ages would disappear. Even those children who know that they are loved can’t imagine how much they’re loved. Nor can children comprehend that their blessing is as golden to a parent as a parental blessing is to them.
Both parents and children must be forgiving of each other, just as spouses and siblings and friends must be forgiving of each other. I say it again: forgiveness must be operative continually.
At some point, most all of us are going to do something or say something that hurts those whom we love most, and as humorist Dave Barry pointed out, “There is nothing in the world more embarrassing to a teenager than a parent!” Along the same lines, author Kathy Lette confessed: “I am not allowed to sing, dance, laugh, or wear short skirts. Having a teenage daughter is like living with the Taliban.”
The tricky part of forgiveness in the parent/child relationship structure is that young children somehow innately assume that parents don’t make mistakes; thus, a parental mistake feels to a child like an intentional effort to hurt. Without making a child feel scared that she or he ended up with a dangerously inept parent, I think it’s important for parents to communicate with their children about the fact that parents make mistakes too. This remains true as parents age. Everything is a new frontier for parents, and since no two kids are exactly alike even when we parent more than one child, everything is still new and challenging. The way I raised child number one didn’t work at all with child number two. The Earl of Rochester once said: “Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.”
Here’s another thing. Just as a child moves through individual life stages so also do parents, so who is surprised at calamity in a household where the mother is going through a rugged menopause right when one of the kids hits puberty. And many of you know the relatively new set of pressures on modern middleagers due to increased life expectancy; they are called the “sandwich generation” because they are dealing with pressures from teens still at home at the same time their aging parents need them in ways they hadn’t needed them before. And it’s not at all unusual these days to see child and parent--both in their senior years.
If I’m an aging parent, I can still make mistakes with my adult children, and I will. If I’m a loving adult child, I will still make mistakes with my aging parent, and I do. I say again, forgiveness must remain operative in all stages of the relationship between parents and their children.
Good parenting is no guarantee of a quality product. There are some great parents out there who end up with a child that grows up to do all the wrong things, and there are some people who are worthless as parents who end up with the most accomplished and well-adjusted child imaginable.
At the same time, good parenting usually helps rather than hinders, and we always have to remember that whatever we build with a strong foundation--whether it’s a house or a relationship--has a much greater chance of lasting than what is built on a shoddy foundation. Practically speaking, this means that even if there are bumps along the way, strong parental relationships with younger children will more likely lead to strong parental relationships with teen children and adult children too. Again, there are no guarantees.
Hindsight can be much clearer than foresight, and that must have been what Diane Loomis had in mind when she reflected back on her parenting experience. Her words:
If I had my child to raise over again
I'd build self-esteem first and the house later
I'd finger paint more and point the finger less
I would do less correcting and more connecting
I'd take my eyes off my watch and watch with my eyes
I would care to know less and know to care more
I'd take more hikes and fly more kites
I'd stop playing serious and seriously play
I would run through more fields and gaze at more stars
I'd do more hugging and less tugging
I'd see the oak tree in the acorn more often
I would be firm less often and affirm much more
I'd model less about the love of power
And more about the power of love.
I am thinking about a biblical “parent hall of fame.” Who were the exemplary parents mentioned in Hebrew and Christian scripture, and why were they remembered?
Some scholars of Christian scripture believe that Paul’s second letter to Timothy was the last thing he wrote. Nero had Paul put to death probably in Rome, probably about the year 63. Paul believed that the continuation of what he had given the latter part of his life to--namely, spreading Christianity--rested largely on the shoulders of his younger protege, Timothy. They shared a very warm relationship; Paul was definitely his father in the faith. We hear nothing about Timothy’s biological father except that he was Greek, but both his grandmother and mother are mentioned in Paul’s final piece of correspondence, Second Timothy. He wrote to Timothy:
Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.
Timothy was well-grounded, spiritually speaking, and Paul didn’t take the credit for it; he certainly would have if he could have. Paul, instead, attributed Timothy’s spiritual grounding to good parenting and grandparenting. Our parents cannot give us the gift of healthy spirituality, but if parents model that for us it’s so much easier for us, so much more natural for us, to recognize that spiritual seeking is an important component of balanced, productive living.
We can only have a functional spirituality if we choose it; it can’t be a gift, but the parent who models sincere spiritual seeking makes it so much easier and so much more likely that her or his child will incorporate that into the way she or he lives. The faith Paul praised in Eunice and Lois, Timothy’s mother and grandmother, was a strikingly sincere faith, and Paul believed Timothy had chosen the same path thanks to their example.
I believe that encouraging by example is the very best way for parents to deal with matters of faith and spirituality. Those parents who are part of religious groups that believe there is only one “right” way to believe, spiritually speaking, are under tremendously greater duress about this than are parents who are open to the concepts of multiple truths and multiple expressions of God. Parents in restrictive religions can’t rest until their children conceive of and act on religious matters exactly as the parents have; everyone in the group must have the same beliefs and must act on their faith in exactly the same way. Parents in inclusive religious groups believe that the spiritual life is one of several aspects of life that needs to be nurtured in the healthy, well-rounded and balanced person. As long as their children are nurturing the spirit, even if it’s in a way that differs from how the parents do it, these parents can be happy.
Of course, if your kid takes a college course in Native American studies and comes home for break to tell you that she or he has finally found THE spiritual path for her or him, and thank Mother Earth for the highly spiritual substance, peyote, you might wonder.
Another mother I want to nominate to the biblical parent hall of fame is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Even though she, with others, questioned his sanity at times, she stood with her first-born (whom you could call “unique” and/or “eccentric”) literally to the end. Practically all of his followers had abandoned him by the time Rome executed him, but his mother, Mary, was one of the handful who stood as close to the cross as they could to support him with their presence until, in agony, he said, “It is finished.” You know what she had to witness that day ripped open her heart, but there she stood.
Any parent who has a child who lives against the grain endures some extra heartaches because almost all non-status-quo types suffer some kind of rejection if not some kind of active persecution. Every harsh or diminishing word that first pierces the heart of child whose only crime is being different will eventually pierce the hearts of that child’s parents too if they are sensitive parents.
Mary heard all the names Jesus’ detractors had called him. She knew how numerous people made fun of him, and she knew about the threats on his life. She was hardly surprised when she leaned that Pontius Pilate had sentenced him to death. Excruciatingly painful as it was for her, Mary stood at the cross while her first born child died. Perhaps, she thought, when his eyes caught hers, he would see the great love she had for him once again and be strengthened in his ordeal.
For a father in the biblical parent hall of fame, I nominate the prophet Hosea because he stepped in to provide full care for his children when their mother, Gomer, repeatedly walked out on them to pursue her numerous extramarital affairs. Not all fathers left to care for children when the mother is out of the picture for whatever reason step up to the plate and care fully for the children, but first-class single fathers have appeared across time though much less frequently than single mothers.
Preoccupied while blatantly and wantonly Gomer was cheating on him, Hosea still took care of his kids. He gets no special reward for that because that’s exactly what he should have done, but had he not done so few people would have looked down on him; many more people, even today, look down on a deadbeat mother than a deadbeat father. That double standard is unfair, however. Both parents are equally responsible for the well-being of the children they bring into the world. If one of the parents is unable to or unwilling to take on the responsibility, then the other one should step up to the plate.
Hosea may have been a fictional character, but whether fictional or historic he was a fine father. He was able to love without limits, and just for the record he never stopped loving his unfaithful wife. At one point, when it looked like she’d left him for good, he went out in search of Gomer and found her tied to an auction block, being sold as a slave. He himself bought her and brought her home yet again.
Finally, I nominate Job to the biblical parent hall of fame. Job was a wealthy man who loved his family more than he loved his money. He had seven sons and three daughters, and one of the writers of the book of Job seems to suggest that the children of Job, all adults when we join the story, are serious partiers. The boys appeared to have been the party planners or instigators, but they included their sisters in their get togethers. They were a close family.
Job was known for his righteousness. Sadly, he believed in a god who was a punitive god and a god who played games with people’s lives; that’s for another sermon. As related to his children, though, Job got up every morning and prayed and tended to his own spiritual health, but because he thought some wild things were going on at the bashes his kids were throwing, he spent a part of his prayer time trying to encourage God to think well of his children despite their behavior. He must have prayed prayers that sounded like this: “God, they are really good people at heart; they just get carried away with their partying. I hope you’ll overlook the exterior, God, and see in their hearts the good people they really are.”
Well, we don’t know if those prayers had any impact on the god Job envisioned or not, but there’s no question about the fact that he loved his children and would have done anything for them. Sadly, again, the god of the book of Job decided to let the satan test Job, and the satan destroyed all of Job’s property and killed all ten of his kids. Thank goodness, God doesn’t really act this way, but Job believed God did. His grief was immeasurable, and he must have wondered over and over again day after day what he could have done differently to have persuaded God to protect his children. After all, if anyone deserved to have her or his prayers answered, it was Job.
Later in life, the god of Job would allow Job to have his fortunes restored, and he and his wife had other children. One of the writers of the book seemed to think that was a happy ending, but we know that one life can’t replace another.
By the way, God doesn’t bring tragedy to our children, to punish them, to punish us, or for any other reason.
When we try to use the Judeo-Christian scriptures to give us guidance about how to appreciate and honor our parents, we are dealing with cultural chasms too deep to cross. The extraordinarily high regard in which parents, yea all elders, were held in those cultures that produced both Hebrew and Christian scripture far surpasses the way that children in our time and place, even those whom we would recognize as especially attentive to their parents, treat their elders. Built into those Jewish traditions, as in many eastern societies today, was an absolute respect and love for parents and grandparents and other elders, rarely ignored.
A society that has allowed elder abuse to become a social epidemic can hardly understand a way of living where age is a badge of honor and not a target for disrespect and disdain. That said, we still look back to the ancient wisdom to be challenged to improve our attitudes towards those parents who deserve honor and attentive care from their children.
Having pointed this out, we are even harder hit to understand a disturbing snippet from the ministry of Jesus.
A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Child of Humanity has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:19-22 NRSV, adapted).
The contrast in this little story is astounding. An enemy of Jesus pledges to become his most ardent disciple, and a disciple--someone who has already identified himself as a devoted follower of Jesus--hedges when a demanding assignment comes his way.
Scribes and Pharisees resented Jesus for trying to make the ancient law relevant. They were literalists, and scribes were the lawyers who kept on offering only literal interpretations of the ancient law as acceptable. Here, though, a scribe comes up to Jesus and effectively ends his career by saying to Jesus, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Instead of turning summersaults and yelling out, “Chalk one up for our side,” Jesus said to the scribe whom we have every reason to take as sincere, “Are you sure about that? Have you noticed that those who follow me as my disciples have given up all the frills? Lawyers like you have nice lives and ample funds and lots of respect from the community. My disciples, many of them, used to live privileged lives, but they were willing to let go of that in order to give their attention to serving the poor and the sick. In order for us to do what we must do, there are times when we have nothing materially. Foxes at least have their holes, and birds at least have their nests, but my disciples and I end up many a day with no place to lay our weary heads. Are you really up for that?”
Before he can answer, this would be disciple hears the conversation, and he has evidently not thought through fully what the demands are for those who are willing to live like Jesus lived. He doesn’t back out exactly, but all of a sudden, he is thinking of his father’s funeral; and the father is still kicking--no where near death as far as anyone knew. But someday, yes, the son would be responsible for giving his father an honorable burial so when Jesus blurts out, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” everyone is stunned. We are stunned. How could Jesus have been more crass and callous--especially in that culture of high regard for parents?
What he said makes no sense if taken literally; if read literally, the statement really is an affront to respect due parents. Obviously, the dead can’t bury the dead so he’s clearly referring to the spiritually dead. Those who are really living life can’t allow future crises and tragedies to keep them from investing fully in today, in the tasks at hand. Of course, when that disciple needed to go and attend to his father, in sickness or death, Jesus would be the first to encourage him to go and would go with him.
The call or opportunity to serve the neediest and most rejected people in society is by no means an excuse to neglect or mistreat parents. In fact, to do that would be to violate what Jesus stood for.
I have some suggestions for adult children in regard to maintaining strong relationships with parents.
- Aging parents these days are usually not sitting around in rocking chairs with nothing more to do than get the morning newspaper and wait for the mailperson to deliver. If they are, that’s OK, but it’s no longer the norm. Busy adult children and busy aging parents need to establish some suitable pattern of consistent quality communication so that both are comfortable initiating and receiving the contacts. This is affected tremendously by how close they live to each other. Those who live closer to each other usually, not always, have the easiest time with the quality communication piece. There is such a thing as too much communication just as there’s such a thing as too little communication. Balance is the key, and that has to be worked out relationship by relationship.
- Both aging parents and adult children are still growing and changing; they are not exactly the people they used to be, and change has to be embraced. I’ve seen too many adult children create a rift with their widowed parents who decide that romance doesn’t have an age limit. Often, the real concern is what will happen to family money if the aging parent marries again, and, realistically, that has to be considered and worked out since there are those in our world who are busily looking for somebody else’s money most of the time.
- How to ask for help and how to offer help has to be determined with respect for boundaries and independence, and it’s not just aging parents who need the help all the time. There are a good number of adult children who need the help of their parents too.
- To the best of our ability, we want to live without regrets so let’s get it right as often as we can and ask for forgiveness promptly when we don’t.
Kendall Hailey had this insight, and I like it a lot: “The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never even introduce yourself to, had life not done it for you.”