Sometimes you just have to wonder what God was thinking. For reasons of his own he decided to hand helpless infants over to parents.
The parental mission: to teach these infants what it means to be a human being. To show them what life is most fundamentally about. To model how to live a significant, meaningful life.
That’s why one thing scares parents above all else. Parenting.
Failure at parenting threatens to be catastrophic. And that’s why we find various forms of hyperactive parenting.
Self-righteous Tiger Moms
mercilessly demand the highest level of performance from their children. Fun, friendship and play are completely expendable.
Overly involved Helicopter Parents
hover over every aspect of their children’s lives to insure self-esteem and success.
Relentlessly protective Lawnmower Parents
seek to mow down every obstacle to their child’s happiness and to smooth out every bump they may encounter.
At various points these parents might feel like killing their kids, but they wouldn’t dream of it. One thing we know for sure is that you don’t kill your children. You give them every advantage you can and do everything in your power to protect them.
And then we read God’s most notorious piece of parenting advice. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac:
He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)
God taught Abraham, and he teaches us, that all of life is an act of worship. Whether we realize it or not, our behavior falls into predictable patterns over time. In the end, we offer our very lives to something.
To use the image of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, we place ourselves on the altar of some god or other.
Tiger Moms, Helicopter Parents and Lawnmower parents disagree principally about strategy, not about the desired outcome of parenting. They want happy children and believe that this happiness will come only through achievement.
To return to the biblical image, these parents sacrifice their children—just as they have perhaps sacrificed themselves—on the altar of achievement. They count on achievement to give their lives significance.
As gods go, achievement is powerfully seductive and surprisingly cruel.
Achievement promises us that once we reach a certain point in our careers or accumulate a certain level of material wealth or win a championship or become a star, we’ll have finally arrived. We’ll be happy.
But no sooner do we get to that peak we’ve struggled to reach than we discover we’re still yearning for something. We’re still the same striving, anxious, unfulfilled slob we were yesterday. All that’s changed is that we have more to lose.
St. Paul seems to be echoing God’s lesson to Abraham when he writes to the Romans:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)
His message is for us as well. Choose your altars wisely. The sacrifice you bring is ultimately yourself. And your children.
We offer ourselves at God’s altar because we trust that he will give us his mercy. This prayer from The Book of Common Prayer
says it beautifully:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful
Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold
and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather
up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord
whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore,
gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him,
and he in us. Amen.
A life offered to the service and glory of God is a life always justified by God’s unrelenting love for us. What we do we do in response to God’s merciful love. We are freed from accumulating achievements in the vain hope of making ourselves love-worthy.
While we parents are charged with helping our children to develop their natural gifts and to make their way in this tumultuous world, we are most fundamentally called to help our children learn to offer themselves as a living sacrifice on the only altar that will genuinely insure their abiding joy and peace.