If a photojournalist arrived on your doorstep to do a little field-work for her upcoming book, “Parenting in the Wild,” what would she find at your house? After conducting her research and publishing the book, what heading do you think would appear next to your photo? Depending upon which family members they interviewed in the Wagner household, my picture could end up next to any number of bi-lines. If the researcher spoke with me exclusively, without cross-checking her sources, I’m sure that my picture would proudly accompany the article entitled, “Raptor Parenting: The Art of Keeping an Eagle’s Eye on Your Kids Without Flying Too Close.” Interview my Seventeen-year-old daughter, and the heading would morph into something like, “Helicopter Dads: Fathers Whose Untreated Neuroses Cause Them to Embarrass and Stunt the Development of Their Otherwise Mature, and Healthy Teenage Daughters.” Dr. Tom, and his adolescent offspring, Annalise, have very different ideas about what it means to parent a teenage girl.
In our relationship, there is a kind of father-daughter liturgy that accompanies her requests to attend a party. After I inform her that a prerequisite call to the party’s parents is required, she will inform me that I am the only parent in her school (and perhaps the world) who requires something so demeaning. Sometime later in this elaborate ceremony, she will deploy the phrase, “You don’t trust me.” to which I reply, “I trust you. It’s human nature I don’t trust.” Next, she sighs, with a dramatic eye roll. Depending upon the particular rhythms of the moon’s orbit, and the consequent hormonal balances thereof, a brief period of storming can accompany any and all of these sacred rituals. Finally, Annalise eventually gets around to providing me the requested information. I then make my call.
I will spare you the details of how these conversations unfold. Suffice to say that I conduct these sensitive tête-à-têtes with a large dose of self-deprecating humor. From the outset, I joke, “I’m one of those neurotic, helicopter parents, etc….” By making fun of myself and begging for their patience, I am attempting to conceal the fact that I am actually conducting a serious interview, and studying their resume. So far, the only objections to my interrogatories have come from my own child. I have never had a parent offended. Mostly they thank me and say that they wish more parents would call.
In this Sunday’s liturgical scripture readings, the Gospel selection appeared to contradict the goings on in the First epistle. In John 14, Jesus promised his followers a peace that was different, and presumably more profound than anything that could be located in the non-spiritual world. But in the story of the First Reading (Acts 15) things weren’t looking so peaceful for the early church. A conflict had broken out between those who followed Paul’s approach to Mosaic practices, and those who followed Peter’s methodology (also described in Galatians 2).
Similarly, in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus said, “By this will all know that you are my disciples, that you love one another” (John 13: 35). By way of contrast, the first reading contained a story about the dynamic duo of the early church community: Barnabas and Paul. One chapter later (Acts 15: 30-41) the reader discovers, that these two early pillars of the church found themselves in the middle of a heated conflict about their mutual ministry. They decided that they needed to part company. So what gives? What to make of Jesus’ promises? Has he given us the means to conduct ourselves with a love and a peace uncommon, or not?
Anyone who has ever seriously parented a teenager knows how to interpret these scriptures. Through the lenses of a middle-aged parent, the meaning of these texts pops out like a holographic image hidden in plain sight. Real love and real peace frequently don’t look like what we think of as love or peace.
I remember my very first experience of childbirth. I was shocked at the earthiness. There was pain, and screaming, and every bodily substance known to humanity…and in the middle of all of this mess came an unspeakably beautiful gift-my first born-Annalise. In adolesence, something very similar is happening. In the messiness of hormones, and impetuousness, and self-focus, a beautiful adult, capable of self-sacrifice, and insight, and humor and intelligence, is being born into the world. My job as a parent is to lean in, to not be afraid to get a little messy, so that, in a very humble way, I can help midwife this process. Seventeen plus years ago, I knew, when Lisa gripped my hand and screamed, not to take it personally. The same lessons apply in this birthing process as well.
Real peace is not born of standing apart, and above the fray. Real peace is a gift that unfolds when we are unafraid to face difficult issues and see them through to a resolution. “By this shall people know that we love one another”-when we are willing to do the messy work that doesn’t look like love to the outsider.
The only pathway to a peace the world cannot give is a willingness to step in and get a little messy. This week, could you ask yourself these questions, “Who has loved me well? Who has been willing to get close-in enough to wear my smudge and smell?” These people are the conduits to vast stores of the peace Jesus promised in this Sunday’s Gospel. Who is mid-wifing that process in you these days? For whom are you a midwife lately?