The Ministry of Parenting

This post was created for a blog for Custer Road youth parents.

I had the privilege of speaking to the youth at Sunday night worship recently. We discussed what “true greatness” is, and how it compares to how greatness is measured and celebrated in the world (Mark 10:35-45). The Gospel of Matthew offers its own version of the same story, but it has an interesting detail missing from Mark. It’s found in Matthew 20:20-28. Check it out and I’ll wait until you come back.

Got it? Yeah—James and John’s mother is in the story! She is the one who initiates the conversation about her boys sitting at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus doesn’t fall for it—he immediately turns to the brothers and says, “You don’t know what you are asking!” The mom just sort of disappears from the story. Why is she included in the first place? Nobody knows—maybe Matthew was trying to protect the disciples’ naiveté a little. But let’s not be so quick to dismiss her. What is she trying to accomplish by speaking for her boys? Assuming they asked her to do this for them, just as they probably asked for rides to the mall before they could drive: why did she agree?

Parenting is hard, isn’t it? Christy and I have a 13 year old, a 10, and an 8. Nearly every day one or both of us says or does something we regret. One moment I’m wanting them to grow up and move out and the next I’m wanting them to slow down and enjoy adolescence and childhood as long as they can. One moment I want to help them with their homework, the next I want them to do it on their own. James (13) recently had a science project due. When he built it I wasn’t sure it portrayed the object in the best way so I sort of challenged him on it. With our help—not building the thing but asking decent questions—his end result was better, at least in our eyes. But it is very difficult to balance what is “helicopter parenting” and what is not.

If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s probably the biggest critique of parents in the 21st century: we hover over our kids. We want to protect them, intercede for them, interview for a job or college admission with them… We are afraid that our kids will fail at something or not get the thing they have worked so hard for—or maybe the thing we wanted but didn’t achieve (ouch). Maybe that’s why Zebedee’s wife approached Jesus that day. So her kids could get what they deserved—glory. Honor. Prestige.

Sometimes the words we say to kiddos do not match their intent—or the way we say things do not match what we feel. And we feel awful and want to change what happened, but of course we cannot. Which makes us feel worse. The opposite of “helicopter parenting” is the feeling commonly referred to as “mommy guilt.” I hate this term—it’s sexist for one thing, focusing only on the mom’s feelings, as if dads don’t feel guilt for their parenting mistakes—believe me, we do. Whatever we want to call this feeling, it is terrible. I tweeted this last Mother’s Day:

I wonder how Mrs Zebedee (sheesh, why doesn’t anyone remember her name??) felt after her interchange with Jesus. Did she do her boys right? Did she feel guilty about doing too much—or not enough?

I do not have the answers to these harsh realities, but I do believe we create them ourselves, and no stack of self-help, Parenting 101 books will save us. Maybe the key is found in Jesus’ words to this lady’s boys: “Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave.” How might our parenting look/feel different if we viewed it as a ministry, rather than a job or burden or obligation with all our too-high or too-low expectations? A parent of an older teen than mine said this to me once: “Hey, basically my job is to get my kid off to college still alive.” What a great line.

James and John were present at some of the most amazing moments of Jesus’ ministry: his Transfiguration, the raising of a little girl who had died, and as he prayed in the garden before his arrest. It was enough for their anonymous mother to know that her boys’ lives—their futures—were linked to the one she bowed before, this one she affirmed as king. So leave the parenting guilt and tips to the experts in the bookstore or on the Internet. Let your kids make mistakes, learn from them, and grow. Guide them, share your experience and knowledge, but most of all enjoy the privilege. My mom always says, “No one will ever know your kid better than you.” Celebrate that! Enjoy the ministry of parenting in the same way you love to serve communion in worship or buy things for a kid you do not know as a Christmas angel or mentoring an at-risk teen in school.

I’ll never forget a banner that hung in front of one of our churches when Christy and I served in England: “Do your best, and God will do the rest.”