In one of the lesser-known resurrection appearances narrated in the gospels, Jesus tells Peter: “When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” The passage goes on to explain: “He said this signifying by what kind of death he [Peter] would glorify God” (John 21:18-19).
This passage has always had special resonance for me, to the point of being a kind of interpretive key to signal events in my life. They sound kind of grim, don’t they? All this talk about being led where you don’t want to go, or about death—even if that death glorifies God. But they don’t have to be so foreboding. At least, they haven’t been for me. In fact, I’ve found a surprise or two along the way as these words have unfolded in my life.
One major surprise came when I realized who it was who would end up leading me in paths I did not expect: my own kids! Now I’m sure that many parents find this to be the case. None of us really knows what to expect when we hold our firstborn child. We can never fully appreciate how much our lives will change now that we have welcomed this new person into our lives. How much more when you are blessed with six children! And how much, much more when so many of these children end up having such a pervasive disorder as autism or Asperger syndrome!
I named an earlier post “A Little Child Shall Lead Them,” and I meant it as something more than a clever play on words. I can testify that my kids—all six of them—have led me in ways I never expected.
• They have led me to the waiting rooms of psychologists and psychiatrists and speech and occupational therapists as I have tried to figure out how to help them through their challenges.
• They have led me to school conference rooms as I have advocated for them and labored mightily to convince unimaginative, one-size-fits-all educators to give them a fair shake.
• They have led me to my knees in prayer—not desperate prayers for their healing so much as impassioned entreaties that God will grant them a future full of hope, a future where their gifts are welcomed and where they can make a difference for other people.
• They have led me down rocky paths filled with sleepless nights, full-scale tantrums, and hours-long battles over homework, housework, and relationship challenges.
Death and Freedom.
St. John tells us that Jesus spoke these words to Peter to indicate the kind of death that awaited him. I think that, to a small degree, I can relate to these words. No, I haven’t died! But my kids have definitely led me to a few deaths of sorts:
• The death of my dream for a Brady-Bunch kind of life. It was a pretty self-centered, self-indulgent dream anyway.
• The death of any rigidity or legalism I may have brought to my ideas of parenting.
• The death of a few relationships due to some people’s lack of willingness to “get” our family’s dynamic.
• The death of an overly romanticized take on the spiritual life. There are no simple answers. There are no guaranteed formulas. There is only Jesus’ unshakeable promise to be with us always.
What’s ironic—but wholly in line with Christian theology—is the degree of freedom each of these deaths has afforded me. Little by little, as my kids have led me, they have brought me to a place of surrender. Not defeat. Not resignation. But true acceptance. These are my kids. They are God’s exceedingly generous gift to me. They have taught me so much about myself, about the world, and especially about the Lord himself. And that leads to the final part of the passage from John.
An Unforeseen Glory.
John said that Jesus’ words were meant to point to the way Peter’s death would glorify God. Well, I’m not about to think that I give God all that much glory. Not unless, of course, he is glorified in huge messes. But I do think that the deaths that my kids have led me to have helped me see the Lord more clearly—to see his glory in new, unexpected ways.
• I see his light shining through my six-year-old’s unassailable innocence, both when he’s in full melt down mode and when he’s completely aflutter with the joy of something as simple as soccer practice.
• I see him laughing when my eleven-year-old says something wildly inappropriate but uncannily disarming at the dinner table.
• I see him shedding a tear when my twelve-year-old gets himself tangled up inside and needs to be talked down from his ledge of self-condemnation.
• I feel his arms around me every time I dive into yet another parent-teacher conference.
• I see his covenant commitment every time I see Katie coaching the kids in homework, making dinner, and trying to help my three-year-old overcome his loud, insistent perseverations all at the same time.
• Most especially, I see him in the Host at Mass as he says: “This is my body.” And I pray in return: “This too, Lord, is your body—this precious family you have given me. And here is my body, my life. It’s nowhere near the image of you that it’s supposed to be. Still, I offer myself to you. You have contrived so many ways to empty me. Now I need you to fill me so that I can give myself—body and blood, soul and humanity—back to my children.”
And the Lord, reaching out his hand to take me, responds: “Amen.”