The Kids Are Alright
December 20, 2020 | Sarah Stewart
Entering a web of family and cultural relationships; curiosity, uncertainty, hope. Each night a child comes into a family is a holy night. Yet, each parenting relationship is a mix of emotions; joy and wonder, but also frustration, sorrow, respect, and always love. At Christmas we retell the story of Jesus birth, we celebrate Mary, as his mother, but joy was not the only feeling in that family. Jesus was not an easy kid or a young adult. He had disagreements with his family, his mother didn't always approve or understand of Jesus, and as much as Mary is an important figure in the Christmas story, she reappears throughout Jesus life, and you can see some of these complexities in their family relationship. Despite the ways she didn't approve or understand, Mary stayed in relationship with Jesus, and Mary and Jesus share lessons for us as parents and children today. We mostly think about Jesus’ parents at Christmas. But stories about his relationship with his family occur throughout his life and are told in the Gospel accounts.
There's one story that's just told once, in the Gospel of Luke, where, when Jesus is 12 years old, his family goes to Jerusalem for Passover. And, after spending the festival in Jerusalem, the family, probably traveling with many other families, leaves to go back home again. But they don't notice that Jesus is not with them, and they travel a whole day out of Jerusalem before they realize this. Then they have come a day back, and then they spend a day looking for him in the city, so now it has been three days, and this family's 12-year-old child has been missing for three days. Finally, Mary and Joseph, find him teaching and studying in the temple. And this story is usually told to show how wise Jesus was already able to interpret and teach the Torah, when he was only 12, but think about that story from Mary and Joseph's point of view. Think about how they felt, terror that their son was lost, worry and the hope and constant battle in their hearts that they might find him again. Doing what any parent would do, I think, returning to Jerusalem to that huge city, and looking everywhere for their son. And then when they find him, can we imagine the anger that Mary and Joseph might have had for Jesus in that moment for not doing what he was supposed to do in staying with the family and putting so much fear and worry into their hearts? You can hear that tightness in Mary, because she says, “son, why have you done this to us? your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety. I imagine her standing before the leaders of the temple, with her teeth clenched, like this, trying to keep her tone civil and letting Jesus know how angry she really is. So, what might follow that moment, what do we think happened next? of course, the story doesn't say. But, you know, we can imagine that maybe Jesus had had some privileges to go places by himself that got pulled back a little bit. After this mistake, setting new limits in the family, a process of building trust, again, between parents and child. The story doesn't tell us any of these things but one thing that I hope would not have followed that experience was shame.
Shame is used too often in ways that our society tries to control children and get them to do what adults think they need to do. My kids have been entirely in online school this year, and so, my son's sixth grade class is taking place in my kitchen, which means I hear and see all of sixth grade in a way that I haven't experienced since I myself was in sixth grade. And his teachers are doing absolutely the best job they can with technology that they have just learned, and children who have varying levels of commitment to online school, and varying levels of internet connectivity, varying levels of ability to do the work under these very difficult circumstances. I have a great respect for his teachers, but I can see the ways that shame is built into the school systems that help us rear our children. If children don't do the work, they are sometimes called out by name for not having done it. The teachers make their frustration, and their disappointment, in how this year is going as a whole, known to the kids. And I feel for them; they have limited teaching tools. They have children who are not necessarily engaging in the material, there's pressure from the district for a certain amount of work to be done and for benchmarks to be met. These are teachers who are used to being able to control their classrooms and who now have the classroom spread out through all the kitchens of Worcester. So, shame and pressure are used to try to control children. And my experience this year with my own kids, my experience in my life as a spiritual person, is that it is always folly, to try to control other people; we just can't do it, we can only control ourselves, and we can ask other people for what we need. And in our society, we're not necessarily used to thinking about our relationships to children that way. When our children are very young, we sometimes have to control their bodies; we have to stop them from running into traffic. A little girl in my neighborhood maybe three years old, decided to go for a walk by herself yesterday, just walking down the snowy sidewalk in front of our house, singing a song. I heard her, and went out to see what was going on, and another mom stopped while she was driving down the street. We were trying to say to this little girl “where's your mom?”, and of course, very soon, mom came from half a block down running after her daughter and scooped her up and carried her home. As soon as mom scooped her up, the daughter realized she was a little bit afraid, and began to cry. So, yes, when children are very little, we need to control what they do to a certain extent. But, as children become adults, part of what we teach them about how to be adults in our society is to let go of that control and model the respect for them that we want them to have for other people. Seeing the shame at work in school this year for my kids, it reminds me of what I myself hated about school.
I couldn't stand it when there wasn't mutual respect in the classroom. I was fine with strict teachers, if they had the respect, they were asking for from the students was shown, and respect they gave to the students. And it also reminds me about what I loved about church as a child, because in my Unitarian Universalist Church growing up, I found a community that accepted children and youth as people. Youth were invited to serve on committees. When I wanted to join the church when I was 15 years old, so I could help elect our new minister, I was welcomed to do that. Of course, there were limits on kids’ behavior. We weren't allowed to run around in the church building. We had to be respectful of the space and of other people. But that respect was shown back to us and our gifts were recognized and used in the community. I had a classmate in youth group just a year or two younger than I was, and it was important to her that the church stopped serving table grapes at coffee hour in support of the Mexican Farm Workers strike. And because of her voice, the church did in fact stop it, we joined in boycott of grapes. That's the kind of community I want us to build for our children. I see that here at First Unitarian Church, and I think that change is possible in our wider community as well.
So, Jesus grows up, his father disappears from the stories, but his mother and his siblings, especially his brother James, remain in his life. There's the amusing story of the Wedding at Cana. Jesus and his mother are attending a wedding, and the Bible says in the Gospel of John: ‘when the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, they have no wine’. It's clear she knows that Jesus can do something about this, and she's sort of needling him into getting it done. But then, during Jesus’ ministry, we can see stresses between him and his family. There's one story told in several of the Gospels where Mary and his brothers come to ask for him, to look for him, and Jesus won't go with them. He says, “who is my mother, and who are my brothers? whoever does the will of my Heavenly Father, is my mother and my brothers”. And we can hear how that might have hurt Mary and Jesus' siblings.
These are stresses that also happen in many of our families today, young adult children need to create their own identities. The parents may still want the closeness of earlier years and sometimes that leads to rejection. There can be distance and struggle in family relationships. And even in happy families, even happy families, are not happy all the time. There are these times of misunderstanding, of pain, of needing space and time. There are families under enormous pressure coping with poverty, addiction, health problems, all of which make parenting and growing up more difficult. But just as in all human relations, family life is more stable in an environment of respect, respect for elders and respect for children. Mary must have been hurt when Jesus rejected her, but respect must ultimately have one out in that relationship because Mary maintained a relationship with Jesus until the end of his life. Mary was there at the cross. She went with Jesus’ disciple Mary to the tomb the next day. Jesus’ brother James became the head of the Jerusalem church. This was a family that stayed connected, even through the difficult times, stayed connected through a respect of the person Jesus was called to be. So even in this difficult and unusual holiday season, you may be struggling with family relationships. I think there are lessons that we can take from the family of Jesus and Mary, respect is a form of love. I think that's the most important respect is a form of love and control is really a symptom of fear. And the more we can let go of that fear, and let go of control, and show respect, the more love we'll have in our families. We can give people space but stay connected. We can remember that we are only in charge of our own behavior. And we can remember the golden rule in families as well, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This might not be the first thing that occurs to us when our kids misbehave, when we have that anger-fear mixture in our hearts, but it works, even with children. At our Coming-of-Age service last month, we read the Khalil Gibran poem on children, and the Lebanese poet writes, “your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself.” Our children are not our possessions, they're not ours. They're not part of ourselves. They are their own people looking to us for examples of how to be adults. We should give them what we want to get back. Remember, that love, and respect will triumph over fear and shame.
I love you all.