So today is Father’s Day. In honor of the day, I thought I’d dust off a post from a few years ago, update it a bit, and repost it. (That, and I’m too busy being a dad today to write something new.) So here goes:
Who’s Leading Who?
In one of the lesser-known resurrection accounts in the Bible, 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 that Jesus said this to signify “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 almost all of the major events in my life. It sounds kind of grim, doesn’t it? All this talk about being led where you don’t want to go and dying—even if that death glorifies God. But that hasn’t really been my experience. Rather, I’ve found a surprise or two along the way as I’ve seen these words unfold in my life.
One major surprise came when I realized who it was who would end up leading me along unexpected paths: my own kids! Now I’m sure that many parents can relate. None of us really knows what to expect when we hold our first 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 it turns out that all six children are on the autism spectrum!
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 sought to understand their challenges and help them make sense of them as well.
- They have led me to school conference rooms, where 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, but 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 as I have helped them work through sleepless nights; relationship challenges; full-scale tantrums; days-long depressive episodes; and anxious, hours-long perseverations.
Death and Freedom.
Now, Jesus told Peter this stuff as a way of hinting at the kind of death that awaited him. And that has proven true for me as well, in a more figurative way. No, I’m not writing from beyond the grave! But my kids have definitely led me to experience other kinds of “deaths”—
- The death of my dream for a Brady Bunch kind of life. It was a pretty self-centered, self-indulgent dream anyway, and I’m glad it’s gone. Now I don’t have to worry about how clean or dirty the house is. Or about when my kids are going to record their first pop single.
- The death of any rigidity or legalism I may have brought to my ideas of parenting. I have learned to become much more flexible and creative in my parenting. “So what if she wants to wear all black clothing to church?” “You want to stay in your bed to avoid the noise of the dinner table? Knock yourself out! Just make sure you eat afterward—and clean up your plate.”
- The death of a few close friendships due to some people’s lack of willingness to “get” our family’s dynamic. This was especially hard at first, but I realized that it’s in times of difficulty that you learn what your friends are really made of. That’s when you have to decide who is really worth your time.
- The death of a romanticized take on the spiritual life. There are no simple answers. There are no guaranteed formulas. And yes it’s true; sometimes God does give you more than you can handle. That’s why he gave us each other. It’s also why he created wine.
It’s ironic, but each of these deaths has made me feel a little more alive and free. Little by little, my kids have led me to a place of surrender. Not defeat. Not resignation. But acceptance. I have learned so much about myself; about human nature, both the bad and the good; and about God that I feel like I’m a very different person now compared to who I was when our first one was born. And that leads to the final part of this passage.
An Unforeseen Glory.
According to the story, Jesus was pointing 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 he is glorified in huge messes! But I do think that the deaths I listed above have helped me to see God’s glory in new, unexpected ways.
- I see his light shining through my nine-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 helping Katie cook dinner.
- I see him laughing when my fourteen-year-old says something wildly inappropriate but uncannily disarming at the dinner table.
- I see him shedding a tear when my fifteen-year-old gets himself tangled up inside and needs to be talked down from a ledge of self-condemnation.
- I feel his arms around me every time I dive into yet another parent-teacher conference or begin yet another bitter disputation with the insurance company.
- I see his covenant commitment every time I come home and watch Katie coaching the kids in homework, making dinner, and trying to help the six-year-old overcome his loud, insistent perseverations all at the same time.
So yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff that comes from these little, unlooked-for deaths. Leave it to religion to be so delightfully paradoxical!
This Is My Body.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m a Catholic, so this last one comes from my faith tradition. More than anything else, I see God in the bread at Mass as he says, “This is my body.” But I don’t just see and believe. I’ve also found the audacity to pray in return: “Hey! Over here! This is your body, too—this precious family you have given me. We’re part of you, and we all belong to you. So don’t pass us over or forget about us. You made my kids this way, so you’re stuck with us.”
Then I go one step further and tell him, “And here is my body, my life. It’s nowhere near the image of you that it’s supposed to be. It’s still too much shadow and not enough light. Still, I offer it to you. Go ahead and keep leading me, even if it’s where I don’t want to go. With all of these little deaths, you have found so many ways to empty me. And I guess that’s fine. But now I need you to fill me and raise me up so that I can give myself—body and blood, soul and humanity—back to my children.”
And the Lord reaches out his hand to grasp mine, and responds: “Amen.”
Happy Father’s Day, everyone!