“So I have to give up one of my desserts today, go to mass twice this week and miss my screen time because we won’t be home from mass until late tonight?”
“Yes”, I replied, “its called sacrifice.”
His frustration was more than apparent, and so was mine. Happy Ash Wednesday and welcome to Lent. Although I could clearly empathize, my response to our 11-year-old’s very real (and understandable) woes was less than sympathetic. I had been struggling myself all day with the pan of rich, fudgy brownies sitting on the counter, enticing me to indulge on a day that was meant for self-sacrifice and denial.
I see them in church every weekend. The pre-teens and teenagers; these beautiful beings stuck within their own (albeit age-appropriate) selfish desires, drowning in their questions about what it all means and what good this church thing is going to do for them. Their reluctance in being truly present at mass is evident in their posture, the expressions on their faces speaking volumes about their inner struggles.
I’ve been afraid of reaching this point and it was in the voicing of my son’s frustrations that I realized, I am there. My children are there; one a tween and one turned teen a few months ago. I had to turn away from my son and take a deep breath. I had to remind myself that this vulnerable child of mind was simply being human and had no “real” reason at this point in his life to choose the road less traveled. For now, he defines “Destiny” as his favorite video game, not the plans God has laid for him. At almost 40 years of age, I myself was still struggling with the true value of walking past the pan of brownies all day. How could I expect my 11-year-old son to happily accept the request that he give up one of his desserts and get all his homework done early so he could get to 7:00 mass and have a cross of ashes drawn on his forehead?
I often find that my desires for our kids, paired with my constant struggle for control, leads to unfair expectations and leaves me parenting out of desperation rather than understanding, gentleness and acceptance; all the things God offers me. It is so hard for me to accept the simple truth that I can’t “talk” or “teach” their faith into them any more than I can coax them to open their mouths for their vegetables, or get them to happily roll up their sleeves and stick their arms out when it’s time for their vaccinations. Just because I know it’s good for them, doesn’t mean they have to accept it; definitely one of the downsides of this parenting thing.
I can still vividly remember my less-than-gentle response to my son when he came home from school several years ago and excitedly recalled the lesson of the Big Bang Theory. I got so worked up disputing the fact that this beautiful world he lives in can’t be entirely reduced to an explosion, my husband actually had to step in and ask that I take a few moments to myself. I took those few minutes alright; took them to dig up my bible and find the real story of creation in Genesis while I pondered what I could do for work so I could pull my children out of public school and get them registered immediately into parochial school (where clearly they should have been from the start).
Irrational? Yup. Over-the-top? Yup. Not-quite-the-way-to-go-about-it? I guess…
I wanted to turn toward my son and ask him, “Would you rather I kept God’s love for you a secret? Would you rather I held back the only real truth in life worth living for?” I may be a slow learner, but past experience told me to keep my mouth shut and I chose instead to silently pray for patience in the moment and wisdom moving forward. I found myself longing for that little boy who accepted everything at face value. I missed that young guy who sweetly asked his father one Ash Wednesday many years ago if he was going to wash off his “Jesus mark” on his forehead before he went to bed. In my moment of longing for confirmation that his annoyance at my request for sacrifice didn’t mean he was completely dismissing his faith, God gifted me with a memory of my special guy a few years back.
At the time, our daughter was two years old and she had come down with the stomach flu. This little girl is the apple of our son’s eyes. She is spoiled rotten with their love and attention and has captured their hearts beyond what we realized was possible. Both of her older brothers were concerned that she was sick and searched for comfort in asking if I thought she would be feeling better soon. When she was all snuggled up for bed and saying goodnight, her brother happened to be looking at a cross pin he had received at Ash Wednesday mass the previous evening. He turned it over in his hands a few times and then, looking at his sister in my arms said, “maybe if we pin this onto her clothes, it will help her to get better.” For him, it was a simple statement. For me, as his mother, it was a window into his heart that I don’t often get to peer through. He gets it, I thought. He knows that there is someone bigger; someone better than any doctor or any medicine this earthly world has to offer.
While I didn’t think putting our two-year old daughter to bed with a pin on her clothes was the safest of ideas, I truly loved and appreciated his statement of faith and quickly offered an alternative. I suggested that, in place of putting the pin on his sister, he could bless her with holy water. “Ok”, he said and followed me into their room. He dipped his pointer finger in the small font that hung on their wall and proceeded to make the sign of the cross on her forehead. It was one of those moments of confirmation that keeps me breathing, that keeps all the defenses he offers in perspective. Whether or not he recognized the depth of the moment, he was clearly comforted by this seemingly simple act. And while he may not have been able to explain it, God had broken through and given him that gift of comfort…and he accepted it.
And that is what my prayer for our children continues to be, one of acceptance. As much as I want their faith to be something I can control, I realize, much like my own faith, it will mean nothing to them unless they find their way on their own. Once again, I am challenged to place all my trust in God; to let Him be in charge. I’ll continue to share our faith with our children and will continue to pray that their hearts will remain open, and the rest is between them and the one who loves them more than I am humanly capable of.
Earlier that same day, in an attempt to avoid a major overtired-infused meltdown at the evening service, I had brought our four-year old daughter to the noon mass. Parking was tight, so I had to drive past the church and turn around to get a spot. As usual, my little girl was acutely in tune to my every move. She panicked thinking we were leaving and she immediately broke into tears and shouted, “No! Jesus! Jesus!” Steeped in my own frustrations (most likely due to lack of chocolate) I shouted back, “Yes, I know! We are going to see Jesus!” As comical as it was, I couldn’t help but think we should all crave time with Jesus like that.
And there you have it; sandwiched between two opposite extremes, I am once again reminded of my own human limitations and asked to place all my children in His arms and let Him be the one to draw them near. “Let the children come to me”, He says, knowing that first we have to be the ones to let them go.