Was it Jesus who said, “No greater love has anyone than this, to sit through a school board meeting?”
No, actually that was me. I whispered it to my wife as we sat together for several hours at a recent meeting of our local school board. On the agenda that evening was the adoption of a proposed district-wide gender expansive policy to protect transgendered and gender non-conforming students and bring the district in line with the U.S. Department of Education's directive on Title IX and recent legal precedent.
We came to the meeting to express our support for the policy and for transgendered kids that are historically among the most discriminated against students and who suffer from disproportionally higher rates of depression and suicide. We also came for the sake of our own children, not because they identify as trans or gay, but to help ensure that they will inherit a more humane, just, equitable, and accepting world — and we hope to raise them in such a way that they will be committed to those same ideals.
On this Father’s Day, we remember and give thanks for fathers — and all parents, as well as grandparents, guardians, and mentors that fight the good fight for the sake of their children and future generations. We celebrate the work of father-figures like Brian Osei from Project Return in Milwaukee, which teaches a fatherhood curriculum designed to help fathers become more active in their children’s lives.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes in her new book, Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting that “becoming a parent,” and fulfilling the role of a parental figure, “tends to rearrange our perception of the world and ourselves in ways that are both easy to articulate and impossible to name.”
Undoubtedly, part of that rewiring of our values and priorities is that parents no longer inhabit the center of their own universe. Everything they do is with someone else in mind and with an eye to the future. To be a parent is to always be putting someone else before yourself. To be a parent is to recognize that your life is the foundation upon which your children’s futures and their children’s future are built — a future belongs to them and not to you. It is a labor of love that involves an amazing amount of love and an immense amount of labor.
Rabbi Rutteberg writes, “This love, its big. It changes us. It’s messy and it’s complicated and it swirls around all the exhaustion and frustration and irritation and ambivalence…. Parenting isn’t one long extended frolic in a sunny meadow as unicorns and butterflies cavort nearby. It’s gross and it’s gooey and its crazy making and it’s hard as hell. But inside all of it, there is this feral fierce love for our children that drives us and changes us and takes us to the brink of insanity, and back from it, again and again and again.”
Parents and Prophets
Parents and prophets have a surprising amount in common. They both take grief from the people that they are trying to help. They often do thankless work. They harbor feelings of inadequacy to the task at hand. They are often pushed to their mental, emotional, and spiritual limit, and so are forced to trust deeply in the love and work of God. They sometimes even need angels or angels-in-disguise to step in and help them.
The prophet Elijah was, in a sense, helping father a nation, shepherding God’s people toward a more devout and holy future. In 1 Kings 19 Elijah is exhausted and in fear for his life. In the previous chapter, he had gone toe-to-toe with the royally-backed prophets of Baal in an epic fifteen round heavyweight fight. Though Elijah and his God prevailed, the victory was short lived as the queen, Jezebel, called for Elijah’s death, and he was forced to flee for his life.
Elijah became a fugitive, walking some 100 miles into the wilderness. He walked so far and so long that he was at the point of death. In fact, he wanted to die. He says, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Many parents can relate to that feeling and have muttered similar words: “God, I can’t take this anymore!” Or, “It happened: I have become my father.”
A wise parent of teenagers once told me that parenting is like the Cross. It involves an unconditional love that makes us so vulnerable that we are often laid completely bare. At times, it feels as though we are being crucified. This is the same love that Jesus, a prophet himself, demonstrated in his life, death, and resurrection. For, it was indeed Jesus who said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends” (John 15:13).
But then in the midst of Elijah’s exhaustion and despair, an angel appears, wakes him, and feeds him, providing him enough nourishment to continue his journey. This sustained Elijah for another forty days and forty nights until he came to Mount Horeb, the holy mountain of God. Finally, amidst the shelter and sanctuary of the mountain, he encounters God in the sound of sheer silence. Elijah pours his heart out to God. God listens and sends him back out into the world.
Silence is an elusive and rare thing for both parents and prophets. Prophets constantly speak to anyone that will listen about God’s call to justice and righteousness. Parents are continually answering questions, solving problems, resolving conflicts, and being interrupted.
Parents yearn for the silence of naptime, or that first quiet moment at the end of a long day, or when all the kids catch the bus in the morning, or having the house to themselves. Sometimes simply driving in the car or going to the grocery store by yourself is enough to get you through the day.
It is in these moments when we are finally able to be still, to be silent, to hear ourselves think, and to listen for God. It is these moments of silence, however fleeting, that sustain us for the work of love to which we are called — yes, even school board meetings.
These are the moments when we encounter God-as-parent and know that through all of our flaws and faithfulness we ourselves are unconditionally loved, and are renewed for our continuing work of love in the world. God says to us as to Elijah, “Go, return on your way.” Go and love. Go and work for justice. Go fight the good fight. Go, and make your children’s lives, this world, and the future a better place.
This article originally appeared at On Scripture.