Many years ago, when our children were still very young, I remember complaining to a church member about some “stage” or another that our preschoolers were going through at the time – and all this parishioner would do was laugh at my plight. The father of two daughters, both of whom were in college and striking out on their own, he explained, “Trust me on this, Michael. No matter how old they get, they’re always going through a stage – and so will you!”
Very early in the morning a couple of days ago, with many hugs and a few tears Lisa and I put middle daughter Sarah on a plane to Michigan, for what will be her junior year in college. And, OK, I’ll admit it – this time it was a little hard. It’s not that we’re new to all this; over the past several years with three children who have suddenly become emergent adults, we’ve dealt with a number of these departures, all of them laced with that strange mixture of sadness and joy – the sadness that comes simply in the fact that we miss our kids terribly when they’re not around, mingled with the genuine joy that comes in knowing that all three of them are where they should be in building lives for themselves. Plus, it’s not all that long before Christmas break, right? Before we know it, the blessed chaos that is family life at the Lowry’s will begin all over again!
Except that this year it’s different – because with oldest son Jake finishing up his studies within the next couple of semesters, and youngest son Zach (who has already been away from home living and working with his brother this summer) starting his freshman year in college in a couple of weeks, it’s now begun to hit home for Lisa and me that for the first time in 25 years, there won’t be any children living under our roof on a regular basis! Not to sound melodramatic here, but I have to tell you that it’s been awfully quiet in our house these past couple of days!
I know, it’s a classic “empty nest” scenario, and Lisa and I will learn to deal with this new “stage” of our lives, and even enjoy it – it is, after all, very much part and parcel of marriage and raising a family. But I have to confess that all of this has led to a fair amount of reflection; more than once this summer I’ve found myself praying, thank you, Lord, that by your love and grace we’ve made it this far, and thank you especially that all the mistakes I’ve made as a parent up till this point have not totally messed them up for the rest of their lives!
The one thing I can tell you after 25 plus years of parenting is that it is one of the greatest and most fulfilling joys of life – but it’s also risky business at best! It’s been said that the most primal relationship in all of creation is the parent-child relationship, and it’s one of the most essential human bonds that exists: so you don’t want to mess it up! I mean, you love your kids, you feed them and care for them, you try to teach them by word and example – and yet, deep down you always worry that maybe you haven’t done everything you should do, or for that matter, maybe you did too much; you think about the times you’d wished you’d handled a situation differently; you find yourself second guessing whether in that instance you should have been holding on tight to them or letting them go. And what about the times, for all your sincere effort, your words and deeds just don’t seem to be connecting – or worse, when they have connected and they’ve literally short circuited right before your eyes – what do you do then?
The truth is that you figure it out as you go along; but in the end, I guess it does come down to faith, hope and above all, love; having faith that God will lead you on the journey of raising up a family on a good and right pathway, and living unto the hope that even when it seems like things aren’t going the way they should, this love you’ve given them with all heart and soul will indeed bear fruit in their lives.
There’s a great passage in the 11th chapter of Hosea, in which we have this wonderful image of God as a parent who loves his children come what may. In that single chapter, you truly get a sense of all the emotions that parents go through with their kids: love, pride, frustration, sadness, regret, anger and even a bit of stubbornness from time to time. This was also the nature of God’s relationship to Israel, and in essence, it is the nature of God’s relationship with all of us whom God would claim as his own: “When Israel was a child, I loved him,” the Lord says through Hosea, “and out of Egypt, I called my son . . . it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them.” I loved them, and I fed them, and I taught them, and they never knew it; I lifted them up and they turned their faces from me. Yet, through it all, “I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.”
I love that verse; and understand, it’s very intentional language on Hosea’s part – what it says is that God’s relationship with Israel was never fashioned to be like a harness of steel, so firm that it is unyielding; rather, God always sought to lead Israel, and you and me, with bands of love and cords of kindness – we are given the freedom to move, and to choose, and to become all that we are meant to be; and yet, God will always keep that loving tie to us, so that he might seek to pull us closer to him when we seem to be getting a little too far away.
That’s the nature of our God – God loves us and nurtures us; God wants us to walk, and God sends us out into the world with love and trust so we can do just that . . . but always and ever God keeps close, always ready to pursue us when we’ve gotten a bit lost, and to call us and draw us back into the shelter of his care with bonds of great and redeeming love. This seems to me to be as good a model for our next “stage” of parenting as any – and, really, it’s no different than it’s ever been, this sacred dance we do with our children that’s all about holding on and letting go in just the right measure.
There’s another verse, in Ephesians, that talks about how children should obey their parents, “for this is right.” (6:1) Indeed. But what’s interesting, however, is the verse that closely follows; as translated by the NIV, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” I suppose that’s good advice as well (!), especially as next week we’ll be helping our boys get settled in a new apartment closer to campus, and do whatever we can to make this next school year go smoothly for them. After all, we’re parents, and one thing we know for sure: they’re always going to be going through some kind of stage, and so will we.
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry