When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” John 19:26 NKJV
In her book, Operating Instructions, Ann Lamott said that parenting leaves you with a wound. “Before I got pregnant with Sam, I felt there wasn’t anything that could destroy me. Terminal cancer would certainly be a setback, but I actually thought I could get through it…but now I am fucked unto the Lord. Now there is something that could happen that I could not survive: I could lose Sam.” This wound is the root of all frustration, all tempers lost, all misguided attempts to control their futures. We just can’t bear the thought of losing them, or even seeing them suffer the consequences of their actions.
The weird thing for me this Lent was to notice how parallel the Old Testament is to Parenting. If God is the Father, the Israelites are the child that learns every lesson the hard way.
It starts blissfully in the garden, creation abounding with the glee of newborn innocence. In Adam and Eve’s ignorance they were incapable of sin. They rest like babies on a mother’s chest, breathing in sync. I bet they even had that sweet untainted breath, and the delicious newborn smell radiating from their foreheads.
As time passes, curiosity trumps obedience. With curiosity comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes pride. They bit into the apple, and suddenly there were consequences and an independence they weren’t ready for. God could have been angrier, He had warned them it meant death. He could have chosen to smite them on the spot and start over, Adam 2.0, but He loved them. What parent doesn’t choose mercy the first time their child rebels? He set the consequences, but He also promised them they would get through it., that someday He would reconcile it all and everything would be restored.
But the bliss of newborn innocence was forever lost, and as it is with toddlers, lawlessness began to reign supreme. He may be God, omnipotent and loving, but being nice is hard. Too hard. I am thankful that in actual parenting, the flooding of the world and fire-bombing of cities is hardly metaphoric, that less drastic actions are enough to set safe boundaries. In their sin His anger raged, but far above it all his love remained. A Rainbow was given in assurance; a sign of that he would never give up on them completely. And more promises were made. Promises that outnumbered the stars in the sky.
Finally the day came when they were ready for elementary education. Many knew the law already in their heart, that obeying God was right, and ignoring Him was wrong. But they were ready to have it written in stone, elaborated on, something to study. Some days they listened perfectly, and sang beautiful songs of praise. Walls fell down and battles were won. A beautiful king, a man after God’s own heart, led the people to a golden age of trust and obedience. Later a temple was built, unparalleled in grandeur and beauty. Wisdom was not only given, but also received. People came from foreign lands to bare witness to this beautiful relationship- the bounty of blessing between a creator and His chosen people.
If only all the days of this stage were that beautiful, for elementary age children will only be ruled for so long before they want to test their knew knowledge. As they grow, the crimes become bigger, the consequences more serious. The lectures last longer and the punishments grow more severe. No matter what’s said, their hearts are increasingly their own, and they are no longer easily swayed. And so it was with the Israelites, they broke the law as soon as it was written. With their increasing knowledge of the world, they clung more and more to other people’s ways, to Baal and other idols. They didn’t always want to be set apart, because sometimes it was hard. Even if it was the truth, even if it meant blessing and joy. Sometimes they just wanted to be normal; to eat, drink and be merry like their more ordinary neighbors.
After so many prophets and repeated warnings with zero repentance, it was time to for a larger consequence. No more would God protect them from their insolence, and the nation was exiled. Like a grounded a teenager, their city was emptied of treasure and privilege. We understand His anger. How could they be so ungrateful? After everything God had done for them, how could they be so careless with His blessing? How could they still not know who He was, and how much He loved them?? Surely if they knew, they would not continue to behave this way.
It took 70 years, but after the time apart God was willing to rebuild the trust again, surely they learned their lesson this time. He wasn’t expecting them to be perfect, but maybe more faithful. The nation, now in its young adulthood, was also ready. It was time to rebuild and say it was sorry. At first, things were glorious. They started rebuilding the temple, sweet psalms of praise on their lips again. But after a while it was clear this nation was not a penitential child anymore. Something was different now, more self-righteous. They assumed they knew it all, so God stopped telling them otherwise. He was done showing them his anger, letting them feel the wrath of his displeasure about their choices. They had always been stiff-necked and no matter how many times he punished them for it, part of them always would be. His hope to reach them now was by unleashing the fullness of His love. He would crush their enslavement to sin with sacrificial love, and those willing would truly be reunited. But the time was not yet right. He would love them from a distance while they aged, vigilant for the moment to offer them mercy and forgiveness. But, oh! How He loved them, more than any parent could.
It went this way for 400 years when the time had finally come. He knew His truth would largely be rejected; that most people’s hearts would still be too hardened to understand. But he also knew all the hairs on Israel’s head, and he knew that among them were enough pure hearts to carry out his plan. Just one crazy guy to announce it, someone who wandered the wilderness eating bugs. Also a humble virgin, not yet wed, but betrothed to an heir of the great King David and 12 uneducated followers that mostly smelled like fish. He would need others to support the twelve in their moment of desperation, maybe a woman, a harlot. Someone who would be redeemed from so much evil, and therefore able to accept the moment of truth when the others had lost all hope. They were lowly people, sinners, uneducated, and from nasty parts of town. But God knew they were ready.
Our Father foresaw every detail, but His plan was brutal. In order to save one child he would have to sacrifice another, the one that was the Word, that was there in the beginning. ‘All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.’ (John 1:2-5)
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It is hard to fathom as a parent. The story is so understandable up to this point. The anger that stems from rejection, the pain and frustration, the difficulty remaining patient with people who are incapable of accepting the truth. Parenting is a vulnerable endeavor, and that’s terrifying. We try not to live in fear, but their futures are so uncertain. The time will come when they’re young adults too, and our feelings and consequences will no longer sway their heart. They will make a decision to follow God or the world, or maybe they’ll try to do both. There is wisdom, that if you train them in the way they should go they will not depart, but there are no guarantees. If God refused to control the hearts of the Israelites, would we even really want that control over our own offspring?
God asks all of us to trust him with our children and with their stories, that he will at some point reveal himself to them on their path. Even if that path leads them to some very dark and dangerous places. Most days it feels like too much. How could God ask that of parents?
As Jesus hung on the cross, almost all of his followers had fallen away, but of course His mother was still there. A mother wouldn’t be scared by the sacrifice of her home, the loss of her dreams, the denial of the crowd, or the hatred of the entire world. I’m sure she sat there sobbing, how could God do this to her? How could He reward her obedience with so much pain? How could He call Himself merciful? When you kneel next to her at the cross, you seethe with these questions too. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be, her family or yours. We were supposed to have happy endings.
As Jesus hung from the cross, looking down at Mary, He knew the pain behind those tears.
“Woman. Behold your son.”
He knew. It’s an unparalleled experience for a weeping father, in the form of a son, to be looking down on the son’s grieving mother. What can He say to her other than behold?
If that was the end of the story, that would still be more heartbreak than any human parent could endure, but the pain of His story continues throughout the history of humanity. Of people who feel His love, who see His works, acknowledge His presence and continue to walk away. It continues with you and me, knowing His salvation, but choosing something less. It is no wonder that there is more joy in heaven when one sinner returns, than for the 99 who have never gone astray. Because after that much painful heartbreak, who wouldn’t ditch all self respect to display their jubilation over a prodigal son?
Parents, God knows your fear and He knows your heartbreak, too. But today He says it is Good. It’s a Good Friday because He loves us that much. Because He loves being your father still, even after all the times you messed this parenting thing up. Because He loves your children, no matter how they’ve disrespected you or Him, or even themselves. As He looks down at the cross, He says to behold. Because every ounce of fear, frustration and pain was worth it for you, and it was worth it for me.