The not-knowing of being a parent

“So, Mom, you raised five kids. What did you learn?”

We were sitting in the small family room of our tiny one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver. My parents had come more than 1000 miles to see their newest grandchild, my firstborn. Growing Kids God’s Way was all the rage in some circles and I wanted to hear what advice my seasoned parents had to offer to my newbie-parent self.

“Well,” she said, “what I learned from raising five kids was that you all were so different that I never figured it out.”

“Oh. Thanks”

I was disappointed. The first few weeks of parenting had been rough. The difficulties with nursing and the infections that came with it for my wife. The sheer sleeplessness of it all, with our son crying for hours through the night. And that’s not the half of it. It was overwhelming.

When he was two weeks old, I’d strapped my son into the front pack baby carrier and gone for a walk in the woods near our apartment. My wife needed a nap and I needed to stretch my legs, so out into the peace and quiet I went.

I took a path I hadn’t taken before, one that wasn’t on our normal route to Regent College, and eventually came to a wide open space but which was still covered by the arched and interlacing branches of alders overhead. It felt like a cathedral. And the holiness of the place made me feel a deep longing need for God, a need made more desperate by my lostness as a father.

So, I pulled my son from the pack and held him up to the light filtering through the leaves above and prayed, “Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing. He’s yours.”

It wasn’t a giving up on him prayer. It was a giving up on me.

This is why I was asking my Mom for advice. I was hoping she might speak God’s good word on parenting to me. And she did.

Those words of not-knowing have been a better companion than all of the practical words of advice (including the brilliant material from the Love and Logic folks).

There is an essential not-knowing in everything holy, including parenting.

We are taking part in something far, far bigger than tools and techniques. We are shaping lives, shaping souls. And there simply are no fool-proof strategies out there for doing this. If there were, we’d all know them. They’d be taught in a required class.

(Have you ever noticed that those prenatal birth classes don’t teach you anything practical about what to do after the child is born, anything postnatal? And as Anne Tyler pointed out in Breathing Lessons, we require people to pass a basic competency test before letting them drive, but we require nothing from people before letting them parent. Why? As complex and dangerous as driving is, it’s way easier and way safer than parenting.)

And those Growing Kids God’s Way books and DVDs and their ilk, they all beg the question:

Does God have a “way” of growing up kids? If he does, it should be clearly laid out in the Bible, right?

So, as a new parent, I turned to the Bible. If God has advice on this parenting thing, it’s got to be here and it’s got to be meticulously laid out, not patched together from a bunch of out-of-context verses. But guess what? There is no significant passage on parenting. Not one. Sure, there are a few verses here and there, but there is no single chapter of the Bible devoted to parenting.

There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible and there isn’t an entire one focused on how to raise kids. So much for the Bible being a how-to book!

Now, the verses that speak to parenting are good and are to be heeded. But they’re few and far between. (It almost makes you think God has something else in mind than our obsessions with our kids ….) So, I turned next to the biblical characters. Surely, there have got to be some shining examples of parenting among the leading figures of the Bible, right?

Let’s see, Adam and Eve? No. One of their kids killed another one.

Abraham and Sarah? No. First of all, they cheated in the whole baby-making process. And then Isaac was still at home and unmarried at 37. Such a mama’s boy, he didn’t get married till Sarah was dead. And Abraham had to send a servant to go find a wife for him. Oh, and his dad tried to kill him once. He had the knife out and everything.

Isaac and Rebecca? No. Their sons were always at it, even in the womb. One tricked the other out of his birthright and then tricked dad out of his blessing by pretending to be the other — at mom’s urging. Then he ran away from home in fear for his life, never seeing his parents alive again.

Jacob? No. Not only did he have two wives, but he fathered children from their maids. And those kids sold their little brother to slavers.

Moses? No. He was never around, never available. Which is probably why he named his son Gershom, which means Wanderer.

Samuel? No. His sons were as bad as Eli’s boys. In fact, God had to tell him straight up that they were no good and wouldn’t be getting his job after him.

David? Nope, again. One son raped his half-sister. That girl’s brother murdered the rapist and then led a revolt against David. And then, get this, the revolting son slept with David’s concubines on the roof of the palace where everyone could see him at it. (Talk about revolting!) And when David died, there was fighting among his sons to determine the next king, with the son of an adulterous relationship coming out on top.

OK, how about the parents of Jesus? Certainly they got it right. I mean, can you fail in parenting the Son of God? Well, let’s see. They got mad at Jesus for spending extra time in the temple. And when Jesus was well into his ministry, Mary and her other sons tried to stop Jesus’ ministry, believing he was insane. This made Jesus say, “Who is my mother? And who are my brothers?” And even though he basically disowned them with that statement because their unbelief, he did come around and take care of his mom as he was dying on the cross.

But I think you get the point.

The people we see parenting in the Scriptures are just as clueless about what they’re doing as we are, even the most devout ones.

The story of Jephthah is chilling. In his great devotion, he promises to give to God in sacrifice the first thing he sees if he comes home from a successful battle. God gives him the desired success. But when Jephthah’s on his way home, his daughter runs out ahead of everyone else to greet him, making her the first thing he saw, not some old goat. Lord have mercy.

My Mom’s unknowing matches that of the Scriptures.

When we are dealing with the holy, we are dealing with the most basic and most elemental things in the universe. But we are also dealing with the biggest and broadest, the deepest and most unfathomable.

This is the territory of prayer, not of technique.

That is not to say that there are no helpful lessons and tools to this. There are. And the wisdom of those who have walked this parenting road ahead of us is far more valuable than anything we’ll read on the internet or in magazines. (I used to be a magazine editor. I know just how little article writers understand about the topics they write on.)

What we need is community. We need collections of friends who may do the details differently, but who support each other as parents — always lending an ear to listen, often lending a hand to help, and sometimes lending a word of advice. We need grandparents. Lots of them and especially the kind that aren’t related to us. We need their maturity, their perspective, their sanity, their life-long saturation in the Scriptures.

We need to embrace the not-knowing, the not-controlling, the walking on holy ground. We are dealing not just with behaviors and schedules, but with souls. We are dealing with the sacred and therefore with God. And so, in our un-knowing, we pray and offer them back to God, knowing that with him they’re in the best of hands.