I want to begin with a reading from the Gospel of Luke—the story of how Jesus at age 12 gave his parents cause to worry about him. After the birth narrative—the babe in the manger story, there’s not much about the child growing up; nothing about his mother putting him on the bus on the first day of school; nothing about the family having dinner together, or having disagreements about homework, or what to wear; no discussions about sibling rivalry, and so forth.
But there is this interesting little tale from the second chapter of Luke: 2:41 – 52
“Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”
Here, then, is a very human Jesus; very human parents who were worried sick for three days when they couldn’t locate their son.
We Unitarian Universalists like the portrait in the Bible about the down-to-earth human Jesus. After all, that’s what defines us as Unitarians—the notion that Jesus was completely human; his birth was a human event, his life and teaching was intended to serve as a model and inspiration for our own down-to-earth living.
The story of the life of Jesus is meant to remind us of the very down-to-earth human life each of us is living. Those of us who are involved in parenting can identify with this story—the challenge of moving through the growing-up years as a little boy becomes a young man. Mary and Joseph were worried sick about their little boy, as any parent would be.
The little story from Luke puts parenting in the context of a different time and place: every year they made this trip into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. They didn’t pile into a mini-van and drive to Jerusalem; they joined family and friends in a caravan on a journey that took several days.
Times have changed, but the basics of parenting have not.
When we were kids growing up in the 1940’s we would say, on the way out the door, “I’m going out to play.” My mother would say, “Be home at suppertime.” As if she had to tell us to be home at mealtime! She would say, “Be careful—stay out of trouble.” She had good reason to say that!
Times have changed. Kids don’t put their hand on the door and say, “I’m going out to play.”
They’re more likely to say, “Can I have a play date with my friend,” or a sleep-over.
It’s not that they don’t play. They have organized play—sports, and lessons; they play games on hand-held computers; they play electronic games on their cell phones.
They spend time on the computer using the internet, combining homework and play–they spend time I-m-ing (instant messaging) with their friends while they’re doing their homework.
They watch television, which we didn’t have in the 1940’s. Now a majority of kids in this community have their own television, in their own rooms; like the computer, television can be educational and informative as well as just play.
But they don’t say, “I’m going out to play,” unless they mean in the backyard.
They spend a lot more time doing homework than we did. They have a lot more organized time with music and dance lessons, and sports that require practice with coaches and uniforms and schedules and a schlepper.
I don’t think most kids would know what you meant if you suggested a buck-up game of baseball using pieces of cardboard for the four bases.
They would be surprised to know that many of our baseball games ended when the ball got lost in the woods, in back of the tall grass; or a game came to a sudden and sad end when the only bat we had was broken–and no one had a uniform, and the kids who had their own glove shared it, dropping it in left or right field or on the pitcher’s mound, or coming off the field and flipping the glove to a kid going on to the field.
How many kids today have learned how to replace a broken window after hitting a ball through the neighbor’s living room window?
On my sixtieth birthday I went back to my old neighborhood looking for Bobby McCarthy, who saved my life when I’d fallen into a tiny pond, unable to swim. I asked around about him, and a woman in the house across the street remembered me, one of the six boys who lived across the street, and she even mentioned that broken window…fifty years later!
It’s a different time—not necessarily worse, nor better; but certainly different. Some things, however, are the same.
For example, every family has a way of celebrating the birth of a child. Every culture and religion has a ritual of some kind to recognize the birth of a child—a way of introducing the child to the larger community, and ritualizing the commitment of parents and others whose task it is to nurture and raise the child.
We call our ritual a ‘service of dedication of parents and children.’
We say to parents, “In bringing your child to this service of dedication, you are acknowledging the responsibilities of your parenthood, which is at once a joyous privilege and a serious obligation.”
Can you imagine the scandal if parents left their 12-year old behind and for twenty-four hours didn’t even realize he was missing?! Then it took three days for them to find him!
The story in Luke says, “They didn’t understand him.” Every parent of a twelve-year old can identify with that line. Some things haven’t changed.
We ask parents that rhetorical question: “Will you teach your child by your own example…?” We know full well that a parent has no choice but to teach by example.
Children absorb everything like a sponge. We don’t always know what they are taking in—we don’t always understand them, but you can be certain that they are taking in everything from us, whatever it is; they hear sincerity and compassion—they learn kindness and love. Or they’re taking in our fears, anxieties and sometimes subtle prejudices—they pick up hints of racism, sexism, homophobia and so forth.
You don’t have to explain the meaning of Oscar Hammerstein’s famous song from South Pacific, written in 1949:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
When people ask me how they should answer their children’s questions about God, heaven and hell, and so forth, I try to suggest that they’ve been answering those questions from day one, and that’s why it’s so important to be aware of your own ideas, thoughts, beliefs and so forth; that’s why it’s so important to do some inner work, ‘to seek the maturity of mind and heart,’ as we say in our service of dedication.
Parents are the first teachers, the primary educators–parents are resident theologians.
First, a child needs to know that you are listening to her; not just to her words, but more than mere words–that you can hear concern in a tone of voice, or any of the various emotions that are wrapped around the words.
Second, he needs to know that you aren’t going to tell him what he should believe, what he should think—and this is what defines us as religious liberals.
A religious liberal is someone who is willing to live with the questions, without the need to have all the answers.
A religious liberal is someone who believes in evolution, and here I’m not talking about Darwin’s theories as much as the process whereby each of us evolves–we grow and changes our minds as we take in new information, and as we accumulate new experiences. We evolve. Parents evolve into parenthood, learning as they go, just as each child learns as he or she grows.
A religious liberal doesn’t feel the need to have definite answers, and to feed those answers to children, even before they ask the questions.
A religious liberal is a person of faith: a deep, abiding faith in the process whereby each of us develops—we believe in the power of the rational mind to apply the principles of critical thinking to problems; we respect differences with regard to all the religious beliefs. We want to turn the old song from South Pacific on its head and say;
You’ve got to be taught
Not to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
To cherish your doubts
And to think for yourself…
To love all the questions
That come to you,
To love all the people who are different from you,
You’ve got to be lovingly taught.
We promise parents our support and encouragement in parenting ‘…that will help your child grow and mature into responsible and happy adults…we will try to be a good influence on you and your children.’
Sometimes we’re very conscious of the ways we influence one another, but, truth be told, there are lots of influences about which we’re not aware, not conscious.
A supportive word, even a quick glance, eye-to-eye contact, a smile, or look of shared concern, may be enough to last the rest of the day, or for many days and even years.
You never know how you might be influencing another person, because you don’t know ‘what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone,’ as the poet, Miller Williams put it in a collection he titled, “The Ways We Touch“
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
As the story from the Gospel of Luke points out, parenting is precarious; it isn’t easy.
It’s not easy when they are infants and need nearly-constant attention; it’s not easy when they’re toddlers and they start to explore their environment—not just the one you planned for them to explore, but under the kitchen sink and in the bathroom and in the closets—what an adventure!
It’s not easy when they go off to school and come home and tell you they don’t like the kids, or the kids don’t like them; or someone made fun of them. It’s not easy, which is why we try to fix everything for them, to let them know that you love them but risking a different message—that they can’t fix their own problems.
It’s not easy being a parent. It’s not easy when they get all of that Halloween candy and think they should decide when to eat it.
It’s not easy when they get a little older and put a Keep Out sign on their bedroom door.
It’s not easy when they do more than just their homework on the computer—when they get into the internet and explore the world.
It’s not easy when they start to drive; when they go out on dates; when they go off to college; when they announce they are ‘moving in’ with someone; when they announce that they’re getting married.
But when they start having children of their own it starts to get a little easier, in the sense that they finally understand what you’ve been going through for all those years! It gets even easier when they apologize for ‘all those years!’
In the little story from Luke the mother says, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’”
“We’ve been so worried sick! Why did you do this to us?”
Jesus responds like any twelve year old who is trying to make that remarkable transition from child to adult. He says, in effect, “So what’s the big deal? What have you been worrying about—didn’t you know that I had to make the transition from being your little boy to becoming a young man…didn’t you know that I had to grow up…didn’t you know that I’m capable of making decisions for myself.”
Only two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, mention of the birth of the baby, Jesus—those are the stories we read from on Christmas Eve—the pageant story intended to remind us that every birth is a miracle, every child has the potential to be a messiah—a liberator.
We Unitarian Universalists like the birth narrative because it humanizes Jesus: here he is, a little baby, just like the rest of us, surrounded by farm animals—part of the natural world. What better way to remind us of the need for humility.
What’s more human than an infant lying in a cradle? And what better way to portray the meeting place of the human and the Divine than a child at his mother’s breast–a symbol of nurturing love–the Madonna and child.
The Chinese ideogram for the word ‘good’ combines the symbol for the word mother superimposed on the symbol for the word child.
What better way to remind us of the challenge of parenting than to have the twelve year go off on his own and talk with the teachers in the temple, listening to them and asking questions—his own questions; and giving his opinion in response to others’.
This is very Jewish, of course, this process of asking questions, and giving your own opinion, and debating, once you reach a certain age.
The story humanizes Jesus. It portrays him as a real-life person who had to assert his independence, to continue to explore his world—to talk with the elders.
“They found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and hisanswers.”
This story is a reminder that the twelve year old becomes a bar mitzvah—when the 13-year old takes on the responsibilities of an adult: the word ‘bar’ means ‘son,’ and ‘mitzvah’ refers to the Commandments given in the Torah…a son of the commandments and the life-long task of trying to understand the meaning of those 613 commandments for one’s own time and place.
The task of responsible parenting has always been the same throughout the ages: to provide necessary nurturing, a safe environment, and encouragement to growth.
That’s why we take our church school so seriously, and involve parents in the process of teaching. The best way to learn is to teach.
But teaching isn’t telling our children what they should believe about God; it’s an acknowledgement to our children that this is a life-long question.
We introduce our children to ideas and beliefs from all the religions of the world, or as many as we can; we take them to services at a variety of churches, synagogues and temples, so they will have first-hand experience being with people who embrace particular beliefs and religious practices. We want them to respect differences and to allow themselves to be open to their own growth, to gain a deeper understanding, and to develop their own spiritual lives, the same way that twelve year old boy was doing by talking to people in the Jerusalem Temple after the Passover festival.
We provide a full and complete program about human sexuality and the complex process of forming and maintaining meaningful relationships in family and friendships.
We provide a youth group experience that is intentional about their taking responsibility for programming; that is intentional about listening to one another and respecting one another and finding ways to be helpful and supportive to one another.
The bottom line is that we need one another. It’s not easy being a parent; it’s not easy being a child. The transition from child to adult isn’t easy. We need one another.
We Unitarian Universalists don’t claim to have all the answers, and we have to be careful not to suggest that we’re better than all the others, even though it’s the best religious approach for those of us who make the commitment that’s necessary to make it work for us.
We were born in the Reformation when our forebears rejected the notion of an angry god who chooses favorites.
We grew up in the Enlightenment, believing that we can even have a religion that is democratic, in the sense that each person is entitled to his or her own ideas, views and opinions. We are a product of the Enlightenment, embracing moral values that promote a free and responsible search for truth…embracing science, the rational mind and the use of reason and intelligence in all aspects of life, including religion.
Our forebears gave birth to this nation, ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.’
Now it’s our task to carry on that great tradition, and when we see that the age of Enlightenment is bending under the weight of religious fanaticism and crushed by religious fundamentalism, we must re-double our efforts to be a beacon of light in the midst of growing darkness.
Religion based on fear will cripple the mind and oppress the heart. Let our religion be free from fear so that our lives can sing, our hearts love.
We’ll close with a reading from a Baptist layperson, Dorothy Nolte:
Children Learn What They Live
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to be shy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with praise, they learn to appreciate.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with acceptance and friendship,
they contribute to love in the world.